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ASU in space: 7 current missions, more in the wings

map of solar system
October 13, 2011

School of Earth and Space Exploration mission portfolio includes Moon, Mars, Mercury, asteroid

Arizona State University is no stranger to space exploration missions. Whether to Mars or other solar system targets, its involvement with NASA planetary exploration began in the 1970s and at present, professors and researchers from ASU’s School of Earth and Space have instruments on board or play a significant role with six NASA missions and one European Space Agency (ESA) mission. Others are in the wings.

Mars Launching Pad

ASU began exploring space as an outgrowth of research on meteorites and cosmochemistry. Mars became a prime area of research starting with the arrival in 1977 of professor Ronald Greeley from NASA Ames Research Center. He established the Mars Surface Wind Tunnel facility and was on the flight team for Viking, a Mars mission with two landers and two orbiters.

Courses on the geology of the Moon and Mars followed, as Mars-interested researchers joined the faculty, among them Philip Christensen. Computerized image processing for remote sensing began in the early 1980s, making ASU one the first universities strongly involved in the field, which was previously dominated by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Then two ASU-designed instruments – Christensen’s long-wave infrared Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) and a visual camera by former ASU geological sciences professor Michael Malin – were selected by NASA for its Mars Observer missions. Having two instruments from a single university on a major mission was largely unprecedented at the time. When Mars Observer failed upon arrival in 1991, NASA felt both instruments were so important that they were rebuilt and reflown successfully in 1996 on the Mars Global Surveyor mission.

Following up on this success, NASA launched the Mars Odyssey orbiter in 2001 to determine the composition of the planet’s surface, to detect water and shallow layers of ice, and to study the radiation environment. The orbiter holds the record for the longest-operating Mars spacecraft.

Christensen serves as the principal investigator for Mars Odyssey’s Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) instrument, a multi-band infrared and visual camera that helped develop the most accurate global map of Mars ever. ASU associate professor Alberto Behar and professor Jim Bell are investigation scientists for the same instrument.

For NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, Christensen redesigned his TES infrared spectrometer making it smaller. Each rover was outfitted with one of these “Mini-TES” instruments to aid in the identification of promising rocks and soils for closer examination. Bell is principal investigator of the rovers’ main optical imagers, the Panoramic Cameras (or Pancams) and Greeley served as a member of the rover science flight team.

ASU’s Mars foothold widened in 2003 with the launch of ESA’s Mars Express orbiter, on which Greeley is a co-investigator on the High Resolution Stereo Camera team. ASU’s involvement increased again in 2006 when NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter began to search for evidence for persistent water on Mars. Bell serves as a science team member for both color and black and white imaging systems.

A School for Explorers

With Mars and solar system exploration growing, in 2006, ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration was born through the interdisciplinary combination of the department of geological sciences with astronomy and astrophysics researchers and students from what had been the department of physics and astronomy. An academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the school acts as the focus for systems engineering research and education at ASU as it relates to space and Earth science.

“SESE (pronounced see-see) was built to be an internationally recognized center for exploration activities on Earth and in space,” says founding director Kip Hodges. “As part of this mission, we will be at the leading edge of robotic exploration and engaged in efforts to re-energize America’s human exploration efforts. I foresee an increasing role for universities in space exploration, and you can be sure that SESE will be at the front of the pack.”

In Focus: Mercury, the Moon, asteroids

Via the MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) mission, ASU is involved with the small rocky planet of Mercury. After flybys of Earth, Venus and Mercury, MESSENGER started a yearlong study of its target planet in March 2011. Professor Mark Robinson, a member of the camera team, was involved with creating the first global mosaic of the planet.

Robinson is also studying the Moon with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, where he is principal investigator for LROC, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera. He is joined in efforts by Bell, a science team member on the mission.

While many space missions go to Earth’s nearest neighbors, some go farther afield. NASA’s Dawn mission, launched in 2007, carries a suite of instruments to image the surface, measure reflected and emitted radiation, and measure the gravity field of two massive asteroids, Vesta and Ceres. These orbit between Mars and Jupiter.

David Williams, a faculty research associate in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, is a participating scientist on Dawn. Williams, a planetary volcanologist who has worked on NASA’s Magellan and Galileo probes imaging Venus and Jupiter, intends to study the geological history of these asteroids.

Right Around the Corner

With the launch of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover, dubbed Curiosity, just a few weeks away (the launch window opens Nov. 25), excitement is building at ASU.

If all goes according to plan, the Mini-Cooper-size rover is scheduled to land at Gale Crater on Mars next year in August. Carrying an advanced suite of scientific instruments, Curiosity will explore a gigantic “history book” in the form of sedimentary deposits in Gale, seeking evidence of Mars’ past and present habitability.

ASU professors and researchers from the School of Earth and Space Exploration, as well as graduates, are involved in the mission. Professor Meenakshi Wadhwa is a co-investigator with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, essentially an analytical chemistry system. Amy McAdam, an alumna, is also working on SAM. Professor Jack Farmer is a science team member for a different instrument, CheMin, designed to examine the chemical and mineralogical properties of rocks and soils. And professor Behar is an investigation scientist for the Russian Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons instrument.

Curiosity’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) also has ties to ASU. MAHLI is mounted on its robotic arm and will make close-up images of Mars rocks to help determine past environmental conditions. Kenneth Edgett, an ASU alumnus, is the principal investigator on the MAHLI team. MAHLI comes from Malin Space Science Systems, a company started and operated by former ASU geological sciences professor Malin.

Malin is also the principal investigator for two other MSL cameras, the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) and Mastcam. And ASU’s professor Bell is an important player regarding the targeting and interpretation of images recovered from all of these camera systems.

Sampling an Asteroid

Another asteroid mission involving ASU is NASA’s OSIRIS-REx. This mission, scheduled for a 2016 launch, is expected to return the first rock and soil samples from asteroid 1999 RQ36 to Earth in 2023. Christensen designed a mineral scouting instrument for OSIRIS-Rex, dubbed OTES (short for OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer). This instrument, about the size of a cantaloupe, is a modified version of Christensen’s highly successful Mini-TES instrument carried by both Mars Exploration Rovers.

OTES will be the first major scientific instrument completely designed and built on campus at ASU for a NASA mission. This landmark effort will be enabled by completion next summer of the new Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV, a flagship facility to accommodate a new age of exploration. In addition to researchers and students from across the university, the building will house the headquarters for the School of Earth and Space Exploration and many of its faculty research teams. An exciting aspect of the new building will be interactive displays and a high-definition, 3D-theater on the first floor, designed for exploration by the public. Viewing windows will allow visitors to see into the environmentally controlled laboratory facilities where the OTES instrument is being built.

“In the past,” says Christensen, “instruments we’ve designed for NASA were built at an aerospace company in California. With OTES, for the first time complicated space hardware will be built right here on the ASU campus. This is a major step forward for ASU – I can count on one hand the number of universities that can do this.”

Says the school’s director Hodges, “Even as we celebrate our past accomplishments and current success stories, we are focusing our efforts on designing and preparing for future space missions.”