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Shooting for the moon: ASU lunar camera chief shares what's ahead

Did you know the moon is shrinking? ASU professor shares the lunar latest.
Dramatic new NASA image of Earth from ASU cameras was a complicated maneuver.
December 24, 2015

Professor Mark Robinson shares what it took to take dramatic new Earth photo, new discoveries and what is to come

On the eve of both Christmas and a full moon, ASU Now spoke with Mark Robinson, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space ExplorationThe School of Earth and Space Exploration is a unit of ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., who is principal investigator for the ASU-operated cameras aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

Last week, NASA released dramatic photos of Earth taken by the cameras (shown below). Robinson shared some of the challenges of the shot seen ‘round the moon, the little-known news that the moon is shrinking and what lies ahead for the lunar cameras. 

NASA image of the Earth from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

A full Earth straddles the edge of the moon, as seen from lunar orbit above Compton crater in the foreground. On Earth, Africa is visible at center right, and South America can be glimpsed through clouds at left. Photo by NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Question: This was no selfie. It was complicated. What are some of the pieces that had to come together to make this photo?

Answer: Just a few of the steps: You have to roll the spacecraft, in this case about 70 degrees, but the spacecraft is traveling at over 1,600 meters per second. We’re restricted in the length of one exposure time to something close to 0.4 milliseconds. You also move the spacecraft in the direction of flight so that you can get a wide enough field of view. When a spacecraft is in an elliptical orbit, the timing changes from image-to-image in an orbit. We have to compute all of that beforehand to get it exactly right. … That timing has to be precisely carried out. … We have to predict the temperature of the CCD (electronic equivalent of film). The Wide Angle Camera (WAC) is imaging an area multiple times while the Narrow Angle Cameras (NAC) takes just one picture. We blow up the WAC images and combine them to produce higher resolution, and then overlay this sharper image on the NAC image. We wanted the Earth to be on the horizon, and that only happens from certain areas of the moon. It’s only when the spacecraft is above the boundary between the nearside and farside that you can see the Earth behind the limb (edge of the moon).

Q: How did you know this image would be possible?

A: We’ve taken pictures of the Earth more than 10 times in the past. We wanted to get a limb shot (showing the edge of the moon). What makes it really hard is getting the moon in the foreground. … That was not by accident. We have software tools that allow us to visualize observations. We know where the spacecraft is going to be in the future. … We determined from which orbits the Earth will be visible near the limb. Once we know the ground track where the Earth will be visible, we then find a view with a dramatic foreground.

Q: LRO has been in orbit for more than six years. If you picked the best shots to show your friends, what are they? 

A: We’ve taken more than a million images. My answer changes every three days. The Apollo landing sites are fantastic. You can see the tracks the astronauts left on the surface of the moon. To me, as a scientist, it’s really great because it helps me visualize the photographs they took on the surface. The significance of the geologic context. ‘All right, now I know they got that soil sample there, and I can see what it looks like.’  

See a sampling of images (and explanations) from the LROC website below; Q&A continues below the gallery.

Q: What are the most interesting maneuvers and shots you plan with the cameras for the coming year?

A: We’re writing a proposal to get funding to extend the mission — right now we are scheduled to be turned off on Sept. 15. One of the fantastic things we’re doing with the cameras now … we would like to get temporal coverage (photos of the same area months or years apart). We compare the before image and the after image. In 70 percent of them, we find small changes to the surface; almost all are due to impacts. We have discovered 222 new craters that have formed since we’ve been in orbit (2009). The pace of discovery is going to accelerate. One thing we want to nail down is the current impact rate.

Q: What is the most important thing you, and scientists generally, have learned from the LRO?

A: That the moon is a dynamic place. There is this paradigm that grew up with the moon as this dead place, kind of shut off, nothing happening on it anymore except impacts.  We’ve discovered there are very young volcanic deposits, maybe even eruptions in the future. Conventional wisdom was that all lunar volcanism shut off between 1 billion and 2 billion years ago. That’s a big change in how we think about the moon. … There’s a lot more heat in the moon than we thought. … We have discovered thousands of small fault scarps — some even deform very small craters (10 meters).  Small craters erode away quickly due to other small impacts. Since the faults deform these craters, the faults must have formed recently. Since there are thousands of these faults randomly distributed around the moon, that’s proof that the lunar core is still cooling and transitioning from liquid to solid. The moon is shrinking.

An exhibit that includes images from the ASU cameras, 3-D models of the lunar surface and an interactive kiosk is scheduled to open in February at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

ASU, edX reimagine first year of college

December 28, 2015

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2015, click here.

Global Freshman Academy offers alternative entry into higher education ASU and edX Partnership The Global Freshman Academy will give learners anywhere in the world the opportunity to earn freshman-level university credit after successfully completing a series of digital immersion courses. Download Full Image

Arizona State University and edX, two leaders in interactive online education, will announce Thursday the Global Freshman Academy, a first-of-its-kind program that offers a unique entry point to an undergraduate degree.

The Global Freshman Academy will give learners anywhere in the world the opportunity to earn freshman-level university credit after successfully completing a series of digital immersion courses hosted on edX, designed and taught by leading scholars from ASU.

By allowing students to learn, explore and complete courses before applying or paying for credit, the Global Freshman Academy reimagines the freshman year and reduces academic and monetary stress while opening a new path to a college degree for many students.

“At ASU, we’re committed to academic inclusion and student success, regardless of a student’s family circumstances. We will not be successful unless we reach talent from all backgrounds around the world, and the worldwide reach of the revolutionary edX platform allows us to open this program to anyone with the drive to obtain their degree,” said ASU President Michael M. Crow. “The Global Freshman Academy will empower students to prepare for college and achieve what they may not have thought they could.

"There are many pathways to success, both academically and in life," Crow said. "This is now one of them.”

Since it was founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012, edX has offered Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from leading global institutions, for learners around the world. This is the first time that the power of the edX platform will be harnessed to help students earn credit on a global scale.

“We’re proud to welcome ASU as an edX Charter member,” said Anant Agarwal, edX CEO. “ASU has established itself as a new model for the American research university with a focus on inclusion and global thinking. This partnership delivers on the founding mission of edX: the promise to transform education while increasing access to high-quality learning. As with other innovative technologies in the digital space, so too will Global Freshman Academy change the educational opportunities that will help people transform their lives.”

The program differs from other digital immersion undergraduate programs in the following ways:

• Course credit for open online courses: By completing the full series of eight Global Freshman Academy courses, students earn full college credit for freshman year; students will also be able to opt for taking individual courses for credit if they prefer.

• Cost effective: Freshman-year credit earned through Global Freshman Academy is a fraction of the cost students typically pay.

• Learning before payment: Students may decide to take a course for credit at the beginning or after coursework has been completed – reducing financial risk while opening a pathway for exploration and preparation for qualified students who may not otherwise seek a degree.

• Unlimited reach: Because of the open course format, learning takes place while scaling completely – there are no limits to how many learners can take the courses online.

• Innovative admissions option: Global Freshman Academy’s approach is different from the traditional admissions process of other credit-bearing courses, eliminating such barriers to entry as standardized tests and transcripts that are part of the traditional application process.

• Track record of success: This partnership brings together a globally recognized online educational platform founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a university whose innovative online degree programs boast an 89 percent retention rate.

Crow and Agarwal will officially announce the program’s launch on April 23, at the New America annual conference in Washington, D.C. This year’s New America conference theme is “Exploring a New America: What Drives Innovation Around the Country?”, and one focus is on innovation in education and the classroom.

“Innovations in education are critical on moral, economic and national security grounds,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of New America.

The Global Freshman Academy will offer a collection of first-year courses designed to fulfill a specific set of general education requirements. Upon completion of each Global Freshman Academy course, students who pass the final exam will have an option to pay a small fee of no more than $200 per credit hour to get college credit for the course.

Completion of eight courses in the series, including several required courses and some elective, equals the requirements for a full freshman year at ASU – at about half the cost of the national average for a year of in-state tuition at public universities.

The general studies focus areas will include mathematical studies, humanities, arts and design, social-behavioral sciences and natural sciences. The first course, Introduction to Astronomy, is now open for enrollment, and starts in August 2015. It will be taught by Frank Timmes, an astrophysicist who focuses on nuclear astrophysics, supernovae and cosmic chemical evolution.

Two additional courses will be offered starting fall 2015, with the remaining courses scheduled to be released within the next 24 months. Human Origins will be taught by Donald Johanson, who most notably discovered the hominid skeleton known as “Lucy.” Western Civilizations: Ancient and Medieval Europe will also be offered.

Because the series is hosted and administered completely online, learning can occur anywhere, at any time of day, any day of the week. The program is perfect for ambitious students who need a more flexible, economically viable model for their education that enables them to hold jobs, work remotely and save money. The Global Freshman Academy will also allow students to get a jump-start on their college education while still in high school.

“These classes and assessments are being designed, built and administered by leading scholars and faculty at ASU,” said Adrian Sannier, chief academic officer for EdPlus at ASU. “These courses are developed to their rigorous standards, and course faculty are committed to ensuring their students understand college-level material so that they can be prepared to successfully complete college.”