ASU selected to host NASA events for James Webb Space Telescope launch

October 6, 2021

The James Webb Space Telescope is the largest, most powerful and complex space science telescope ever built. It is targeted to launch into space from Kourou, French Guiana, on Dec. 18. 

Webb will serve as the premier deep space observatory for the next decade, exploring every phase of cosmic history — from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe, and everything in between. Artist's conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Artist's conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo courtesy of NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez Download Full Image

Arizona State University Regents Professor Rogier Windhorst of the School of Earth and Space Exploration is a co-investigator and interdisciplinary scientist for Webb. He is joined by research scientist Rolf Jansen and assistant research scientist Seth Cohen, along with a team of ASU undergraduate and graduate students working on this mission.   

In honor of this historic launch and to highlight ASU’s involvement in this mission, the university is joining nearly 500 event hosts across the nation that were selected by NASA to provide a series of events celebrating Webb and highlighting the scientists behind the telescope. 

NASA’s Science Activation (SciAct) program, a community-based approach to connect NASA science with learners of all ages, is leading the national efforts to celebrate the launch of Webb and to showcase the mission. 

“We are excited about a new approach where nearly 500 communities hear firsthand the ‘behind the scenes’ story about this incredible mission from science experts,” said Kristen Erickson, director of science engagement and partnerships at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. “Partnering with these communities at the beginning of Webb’s journey will also provide insights about how we can co-create opportunities together for Arizona and the nation.” 

To encourage participation in Webb events across Arizona, and in conjunction with four of ASU’s SciAct projects, including ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration SCoPE and Infiniscope projects, the school has created a Webb calendar of events with 15 NASA-selected hosts across the state.

K-12 students are encouraged to download the Webb Passport to the Stars and attend at least three NASA Webb events in Arizona. K-12 students will then be eligible to win Webb prizes including posters, a VIP-only “Ask Me Anything about Webb” event with ASU scientists and a NASA mystery prize. 

K-12 students who download the Webb Passport to the Stars and attend at least three Webb events will be eligible for prizes from ASU and NASA.

“ASU has strong community partnerships across the state of Arizona that are enabled by the NASA Science Activation teams,” said Jessica Swann, deputy principal investigator for SciAct engagement on the SCoPE team and community manager for the Infiniscope project. “Webb is an excellent opportunity to activate these different communities to bring the science and engineering of this mission to learners of all ages and backgrounds. We are excited to have ASU leading the charge across Arizona."

In addition to Webb events being held across the state, there are several upcoming opportunities through ASU that are free, held virtually and open to the public. 

The first Webb event ASU will host is the fall 2021 New Discoveries Lecture at 7 p.m. Oct. 7. This lecture will feature a panel discussion, with a Q&A session on Webb with ASU scientists and students who work on the telescope mission, including Windhorst. 

“For over two decades, the ASU Webb team has been involved with NASA in defining the science case for the Webb telescope,” Windhorst said. “In addition to revealing the secrets of targets that we have planned for Webb to observe, perhaps most importantly, we hope that Webb will rewrite the science textbooks in ways that we could not have foreseen.''

Following this lecture, School of Earth and Space Exploration graduate students will host the fall 2021 Earth and Space Open House from 6 to 8 p.m., Oct. 22. This virtual event will feature experts in the earth and space sciences, with a special focus on the Webb telescope. During this event, attendees will have the opportunity to talk with scientists and explore the latest research from the school.

Then, in partnership with the Maricopa County Library District, ASU postdoctoral scholar Tim Carleton and undergraduate student Liam Nolan will present “The Universe Beyond Hubble," at 6 p.m., Oct. 26. During this event they will share research that they and their collaborators conduct related to Webb.

And lastly, on Nov. 13, the school will host the annual Earth and Space Exploration Day. Faculty, research scientists, staff, graduate students and undergraduate students will be on hand to showcase the latest research in earth and space science, and a special presentation will be given by scientists working on Webb. Details on this event will be available on the school’s event page, where launch event information will also be posted.  

“If you are fascinated by the mysteries of the universe, or have school-age kids who are naturally curious about everything, I encourage you to explore our Webb calendar of events," said Meenakshi Wadhwa, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration and principal investigator of the SCoPE SciAct project. “It's very likely that you will find some exciting virtual or in-person events to participate in between now and December.”

About the James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the world's premier space science observatory when it launches in 2021. Webb will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency. Visit the NASA James Webb Space Telescope site to learn more.

Karin Valentine

Media Relations & Marketing manager, School of Earth and Space Exploration


ASU research on protein responsible for detection, regulation of body temp part of collection marking Nobel Prize

October 6, 2021

The 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded on Oct. 3 to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian "for their discoveries of receptors for temperature and touch." To celebrate, the journal Nature Portfolio presented a collection including further exciting research focused on different aspects of TRP and PIEZO channels, proteins that sense these ubiquitous stimuli.

Included in the collection is a paper published by scientists from Arizona State University's School of Molecular Sciences and the Biodesign Institute in Nature Communications that helps clarify the contributions to an ion channel’s temperature-dependent activation. This in turn should aid in the development of new types of nonaddictive pain therapies. collage of photos that include two portraits of ASU professors, Wade Van Horn and Marcia Levitus, and an illustration of cellular biology Top right: Wade Van Horn, associate professor in the School of Molecular Sciences. Bottom right: Marcia Levitus, professor in the School of Molecular Sciences who is also part of the Biodesign Center for Single Molecule Biophysics. Download Full Image

The ability to sense and respond to temperature is fundamental in biology. Ion channels are formed by membrane proteins that allow ions to pass through the otherwise impermeable lipid cell membrane, where they are used as a communication network.

“TRPV1 is an ion channel that is widely expressed in various tissues and plays a variety of roles in biology,” said Associate Professor Wade Van Horn, senior author of the current research. “It is best known for its role as the primary hot sensor in humans; it is the main way that we sense heat in our environment.”

Although important contributions have been made in the investigation of TRPV1 thermosensing, its mechanism has remained elusive.

TRPV1 is also a common taste and pain sensor — think spicy foods and pepper spray. Beyond these roles, it has been implicated in longevity, inflammation, obesity and cancer. For decades it has been a target in the search for new types of nonaddictive pain medication.

“However, to date, a common feature is that while TRPV1 targeting compounds can relieve pain, they also cause off-target effects, especially causing changes in body temperature, which has limited their utility," Van Horn said. "These off-target effects happen because TRPV1 is activated by many distinct stimuli, including ligands (i.e., capsaicin, the main ingredient in pepper spray), heat and protons (acidic pH).”

Wade and Marcia

Heat activates the TRPV1 channel, which is in the middle. In red is the domain the authors show to be central to heat activation; the molecule on the right is capsaicin. It is the cognate agonist for TRPV1, and it also is the active ingredient in spicy food and pepper/bear spray. In the end, TRPV1 integrates these stimuli, which sends the signals to the brain for interpretation (i.e., TRPV1 is the receptor that initiates signal transduction). Image courtesy of Wade Van Horn

Also particularly limiting is the uncertainty about the mechanisms that underlie temperature-sensing and how the different activation mechanisms are linked together.

This study used a variety of techniques, from cellular to atomic in nature, to investigate the domain of TRPV1 that is key to its ligand activation.

The techniques included nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy experiments — like an MRI — aided by Brian Cherry, associate research professional in the Magnetic Resonance Research Center, and intrinsic fluorescence carried out in School of Molecular Sciences Professor Marcia Levitus’ lab. Levitus is also part of the Biodesign Center for Single Molecule Biophysics. Other techniques included far-ultraviolet circular dichroism and temperature-dependent electrophysiology.

Van Horn explains that this work identifies for the first time, both functionally and thermodynamically, that a particular region of TRPV1 is crucial to heat activation. The team proposes, and provides experimental validation for, the heat activation mechanism and details a number of structural changes that happen as the temperature is changed.

This study provides a framework that the team anticipates will be foundational for future studies to further refine how we sense high temperatures and, importantly, how we can distinguish and target specific activation mechanisms that should promote the development of new types of nonaddictive pain therapies.

All the interdisciplinary studies were completed at ASU. The team also included Minjoo Kim, Nicholas Sisco and Jacob Hilton, who are currently postdoctoral researchers at Columbia University, Barrow Neurological Institute and the National Institutes of Health, respectively. Camila Montano and Van Horn are also part of the Biodesign Institute Virginia G. Piper Center for Personalized Diagnostics, and Manuel (Mac) Castro is currently a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University.

Jenny Green

Clinical associate professor, School of Molecular Sciences