Turbulent terrain: Peering beneath the Venusian surface

Research project aims to provide prototype for next-generation seismometers for planetary exploration

May 13, 2020

If your purpose is to test the toughness of a particular technology, Venus is an optimal site for the experiment.

The planet closest to Earth is the hottest in our solar system — even hotter than Mercury, the planet closest to the sun — with an average surface temperature of more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit. Venus and Earth Solar system neighbors Earth and Venus are close to each other in size, mass, composition and in the conditions under which they formed, but radically different in atmospheric composition and other ways. Both the nearly identical and sharply contrasting characteristics draw the interest of planetary researchers. Photo courtesy Pixabay Download Full Image

Scientists believe Venus once had an Earth-like climate with a lot of water, including oceans. But the buildup of a dense atmosphere of close to 100% carbon dioxide created an intense greenhouse effect that trapped heat and boiled away water and any chance of sustaining life.

Such hostile territory is an ideal laboratory for a new project in NASA’s Planetary Instrument Concepts for the Advancement of Solar System Observations program, or PICASSO.

Close to $1 million has been awarded by NASA to a team of engineers and scientists at Arizona State University and Wayne State University in Michigan to produce a miniature seismometer — an electronic ground-motion detection sensor with a data recording system — capable of operating effectively in the extreme Venusian environment.

two women in a lab

Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Professor Lenore Dai (right) pictured with Elizabeth Nofen, who conducted research in Dai’s lab to earn her doctoral degree in chemical engineering. Dai will provide research opportunities to two doctoral students in the research project she is leading for the NASA PICASSO program. Photo by Jessica Hochreiter/ASU

Professor Lenore Dai, a chemical engineer and director of the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, one of the six Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU, is leading the endeavor to better understand the workings of the interior structure of Venus.

Like Earth, Venus also has a central core, a mantle of rocky materials and a crust. So, getting a clear picture of seismic (ground motion) activity on Venus has long been a target for scientific exploration.

“The surface of Venus is a nasty place,” said one of Dai’s co-investigators, Associate Professor of Research James Lyons, a planetary scientist in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, but the team’s prototype seismometer “has the potential to survive for extended periods of time — months or maybe longer — on the surface, and can be deployed at any angle. A suite of these seismometers deployed on the surface would revolutionize our understanding of Venus.”

Dai says a seismometer that can handle the stress of the climatic conditions on Venus will provide a template for next-generation seismometers and other sensing technologies capable of performing their missions throughout the solar system.

Co-investigator Joseph O’Rourke, a planetary geologist and assistant professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, is focusing on the planet’s dynamics “from crust to core.”

Gathering seismic data from the interior of Venus “will help define how the seismometer will need to perform to answer high-priority science questions,” O’Rourke said. “I think our prototype seismometer will become a great candidate for advanced development and, eventually, inclusion on a space flight mission (to the planet).”

Co-investigator Edward Garnero, a professor and geophysicist and an expert in geodynamic modeling in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, is providing a seismic and geologic map of Venus for the team. The work of another co-investigator, Yong Xu, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Wayne State University, focuses on electrical circuit research.

The team’s proposed miniature seismometer is based on a liquid sensing mechanism that uses a molecular electronic transducer, or MET.

cross sections of Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon and Mars

Similarities between the cores, mantles and crusts of Venus and Earth make the planet’s interior particularly intriguing to scientists and engineers. The two planets have large iron cores, rocky silicate mantles and long histories of seismic activity. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Dai is a pioneer in developing ionic liquid-based MET seismometers for planetary exploration. She has led the development of a high-performance ionic liquid-based electrolyte for the MET seismometer over the past six years.

She has also been awarded a new grant of more than $437,000 from NASA to support research aimed at developing a MET sensor to be integrated at the system level for potential moon missions.

MET-based seismometers include an assemblage of devices and components. MET technology also uses a fluid to respond to accelerations of seismic activity. The fluid flows through a sensing component that produces a measurable current to provide highly precise ground motion data.

In addition, the seismometer doesn’t need to be particularly large or heavy to perform efficiently, and it needs only a relatively low amount of energy to operate and can be installed at arbitrary or random angles.

Dai says NASA wants to see the three-year project produce a design and prototype for technology capable of providing new scientific data for future Venus exploration missions. The funding also supports two positions for engineering doctoral students to work on developing the new seismometer.

Karin Valentine, media relations and marketing manager for ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, contributed to this article.

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering


Virtual reception held for graduates of ASU’s Master of Arts in global security

May 13, 2020

Every semester near graduation, the School of Politics and Global Studies brings together ASU Online students from the Master of Arts in global security program for a reception in Tempe.

This May 11, the first day of Arizona State University’s virtual commencement ceremonies, the school transitioned to holding their annual reception for the graduate program via Zoom. screen capture of several people in an online Zoom meeting School of Politics and Global Studies faculty and staff meet with alumni and recent grads of the Master of Arts in global security for their virtual reception. Download Full Image

"This event is just one of many similar efforts we make to provide our students many of the intangible benefits of education that are sometimes missed in online graduate programs,” said Jeff Kubiak, a co-director of the program and professor of practice at ASU.

This year’s cohort includes 19 students, two of which are the first to graduate from the cybersecurity concentration. The Master of Arts in global security, which started in 2017, is projected to reach an alumni base of 100 by the end of 2020.

Daniel Rothenberg, co-director of the program, professor of practice at ASU and co-director of the Center on the Future of War, offered his congratulations to the graduating class.

“They are a diverse and incredible group, studying with us from all over the country and the world, often while working full or part time, raising families and, now, managing the challenges of a global pandemic,” added Rothenberg. “It is an honor and privilege to work with them.”

Thorin Wright, associate professor and interim associate director of graduate studies with the School of Politics and Global Studies, spoke to the integral part the global security program plays in the school’s degree offerings and commended the student’s work on their capstone projects.

Global security students have a wide range of ages, career experiences and backgrounds. Because it is an online degree, some students take classes while continuing to work full time or, in some cases, even getting deployed to active service.

“Having 30-plus years in this business, you think you’ve seen it all,” said recent graduate John Oliveira. “This program has filled a lot of gaps for me in understanding all of the processes that happen at different levels. It’s been an excellent program.”

The support from faculty has been pivotal to the success of students like recent graduate Marvin Leal, who became a new parent in the final year in the program.

“I just want to thank everybody for the help — especially Professor Kinkel and Professor Lassi,” added Leal. “You guys were really helpful and made it to where I could do my work and take over these new parenting duties.”

A key takeaway from the reception was that the faculty are looking to build the program community. The school has set up Facebook and LinkedIn groups specifically for students of the Master of Arts in global security program (or as it is referred to within the program, MAGS).

“A sense of community and a network of colleagues are more difficult to generate in an online program, but we think that through the effort of the MAGS staff, faculty and students and alumni, we've come a long way in creating those important aspects of graduate education for our students," Kubiak said.

Matt Oxford

Assistant Director of Strategic Marketing and Communications, College of Global Futures