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Small but mighty: How UArizona researchers are harnessing the power of algae to capture carbon An astrobiologist, an engineer and an ecologist have teamed up to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Mikayla Mace Kelley April 20, 2022 University Communications

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Two scientists in a lab
Astrobiologist Daniel Apai (right) and biosystems engineer Joel Cuello (left) work with algae in the lab. Their team aims to harness the power of coccolithophores, which are a single-celled marine algae that use atmospheric carbon dioxide and calcium from saltwater to create intricate shells made of calcium carbonate. The shells are made from a very stable, chalk-like mineral. They can be grown efficiently, then stored to trap carbon dioxide. Chris Richards
Science and Technology Adaptation BIO5 Biosphere 2 College of Agriculture and Life Sciences College of Science Determination Experts Research Sustainability

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Mikayla Mace Kelley

Science Writer, University Communications

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Joel Cuello

Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering

Régis Ferrière

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

As a University of Arizona professor of astronomy and planetary sciences who studies planets orbiting other stars, Daniel Apai spends much of his time thinking about what makes worlds habitable.

On Earth, the carbon cycle plays a key role in maintaining conditions for life. Earth releases carbon into the atmosphere and reabsorbs it through geological and biological processes. But humans have released more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the carbon cycle naturally would, causing global temperatures to rise.

Apai has assembled a team that plans to harness the principles of the carbon cycle to trap massive amounts of carbon dioxide and curb the worst impacts of climate change.

They call themselves Atmospherica. In addition to Apai, the team includes Joel Cuello, a professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering and BIO5 Institute member; Régis Ferrière, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; Martin Schlecker, an astrophysicist and postdoctoral research associate; and Jack Welchert, a biosystems engineering doctoral student.

Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and future climate projections find that preventing the worst effects of climate change will require carbon removal from the atmosphere at gigaton-per-year levels.

"Yet, no existing technology is thought to be scalable enough to succeed in this," Apai said. "What we need to do as a civilization is to reduce our emissions as much as possible, because extracting from the air is much more difficult than not emitting it. No one has come up with a solution that extracts carbon dioxide so efficiently as to allow the continued burning of fossil fuels."


Coccolithophores seen under a microscope
A sample of coccolithophores of various shapes sourced from the Maldives.

The Atmospherica team team hopes to be a part of the solution, by harnessing the power of algae.

It's all in the algae

"Climate change is one of the great challenges we are facing as a species and civilization," Apai said.

He began the search for potential climate change solutions as a hobby seven years ago. He found that most existing carbon removal solutions could not be scaled up to the levels required, were prohibitively expensive or were harmful to the environment.

As an astrobiologist, he decided to pursue solutions inspired by nature. That's when he learned about coccolithophores – single-celled marine algae. What makes these algae special is the fact that they use atmospheric carbon dioxide and calcium from saltwater to create intricate shells made of calcium carbonate – a very stable, chalk-like mineral. These shells evolved to protect the algae and regulate the algae's buoyancy and light exposure.

Coccolithophores naturally extract carbon dioxide from the ocean as part of their life cycle. While most of them are consumed by predators, a very small fraction decompose, uneaten, while their carbon-containing shells sink to the ocean floor, where they remain indefinitely. The White Cliffs of Dover on the English coastline are huge 90-million-year-old deposits of these shells and demonstrate their incredible stability.

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White cliffs over an ocean
The White Cliffs of Dover in England are an example of large coccolithophore shell deposits and how stable they are over time.

Apai wondered if it would be possible to grow coccolithophores on a large enough scale to change Earth's atmospheric composition. To do this would require a safe and controlled environment for the algae to grow.

Enter the air accordion

Cuello and his Biosystems Engineering Lab have developed a portfolio of patented low-cost novel photobioreactors in which to grow algae and other types of cell cultures in an efficient and productive way. One of the designs is the air accordion photobioreactor.


The air accordion photobioreactor that Joel Cuello and his biosystems engineering team designed. This photobioreactor will be further optimized to grow coccolithophores most efficiently. Joel Cuello

The air accordion photobioreactor consists of a rectangular metal frame with horizontal bars – like steps on a ladder – spaced closer together at the bottom and farther apart at the top. A polyethylene bag full of nutrient-rich saltwater is woven throughout this ladder-like frame. Air is pumped in from the bottom and circulated through the saltwater mixture. The design maximizes the liquid-mixing capacity of air bubbles pumped in from the bottom and allows for even distribution of light and dissolved nutrients.

The photobioreactor make it possible to efficiently grow large amounts of algae. And because the algae are grown in a controlled environment, within the polyethylene bag, they are protected from predators. The researchers say their air accordion photobioreactor is also easy to scale up.

Cuello and Apai patented the use of coccolithophore algae for carbon dioxide removal in this kind of photobioreactor, and they hope to continue to optimize the design for even more efficient coccolithophore growth and carbon uptake.

"Our goal is to reach a gigaton-per-year level of carbon dioxide extraction capacity, while remaining affordable and with very limited environmental impact," Apai said.

The researchers hope the photobioreactors can be made even more sustainable in the future. They envision a world in which solar-powered bioreactors would be located by the ocean, allowing for easy access to the seawater required to help the coccolithophores grow. Even better, the researchers say, would be to establish the photobioreactors near desalination plants, which produce calcium as a waste product. Calcium is an important nutrient for coccolithophores and is used in the saltwater mixture.

The team hopes the design offers a viable solution for carbon removal that overcomes some of the limitations of existing technologies, such as chemical filtration techniques, which are difficult to scale up because they are energy intensive and often require rare minerals. They also can produce environmentally harmful waste products.

To ensure that their method is scalable and confirm how much net carbon dioxide it pulls from the atmosphere, members of the Atmospherica team plan to build a demonstration facility in a greenhouse atop the university's Sixth Street Garage and a larger facility at the university's Biosphere 2 research facility.

They also plan to "do a full accounting of its carbon footprint, from cradle to grave," Apai said.

"We have completed a promising exploratory analysis and plan to publish a paper on the subject this summer," Apai said.

The team is also aiming to keep the cost of carbon removal to less than $100 per ton extracted.

"Anything more expensive is not viable," Apai said.

The urgency

Apai stressed that even if we can transition most industries efficiently toward zero emissions, for a few decades we will still end up producing about 15% of our current emissions, or about 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually. That's partly because things like large airplanes and cargo ships rely on fossil fuels that pack a lot of energy in a small volume. They physically cannot be battery powered.

That remaining 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide is what Atmospherica hopes the coccolithophores can successfully absorb.

"Our governments have delayed action so much that we now need to be successful on both counts: building a sustainable future and fixing the damage we keep doing in the meantime," Ferrière said. "With its emphasis on resilience science, our university and its international partners are committed to advance the interdisciplinary research that will solve this grand challenge."

UArizona paleoclimatologist to receive NSF's highest early-career honor On May 5, Jessica Tierney will be the first climatologist to win the Alan T. Waterman Award since Congress established it in 1975. She is also the first from the University of Arizona to ever receive the honor. National Science Foundation and University Communications April 20, 2022

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Jessica Tierney
Jessica Tierney
Science and Technology College of Science Faculty Institutional Excellence Science

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Mikayla Mace Kelley

Science Writer, University Communications

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Jessica Tierney

Department of Geosciences

Read about Tierney's work in these stories:

Jessica Tierney, a University of Arizona geoscientist who studies ancient climates, is one of three scientists to be named a 2022 recipient of the National Science Foundation's Alan T. Waterman Award. The award, which comes with $1 million over five years, is the nation's highest honor for early-career scientists and engineers, and recognizes outstanding individual achievements in NSF-supported research.

Tierney, an associate professor in the Department of Geosciences in the College of Science, is the first climatologist to win the award since Congress established it in 1975. She is also the first from UArizona to ever receive the honor.

This is the first year the NSF has chosen to honor three researchers. The other recipients are Lara Thompson, a biomedical engineer at the University of the District of Columbia, and Daniel Larremore, a computer scientist from the University of Colorado Boulder.

"It is a great pleasure to honor these three outstanding scientists with the Waterman Award," said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. "They have clearly demonstrated a superb record of scientific achievements by using creative and innovative approaches that have further strengthened basic research in their respective fields. We are grateful to all of our honorees for the vital role they play in advancing the scientific enterprise. I am thrilled to congratulate each of them and look forward to their tremendous accomplishments in the future."

According to the NSF's Higher Education Research and Development Survey, UArizona's research and development expenditures are ranked in the top 4% of all U.S. universities. UArizona is ranked No. 20 among public institutions and No. 35 overall, with $761 million in total research activity.

Looking back to plan ahead

As a high school student, Tierney knew she was interested in majoring in science but didn't know which field until she started college. She enrolled in an introductory geology course that sparked her interest in Earth science. She also became interested in studying the history of Earth and, more specifically, paleoclimatology, which looks deeply into ancient climates to answer questions about what Earth's past climate was like and why.

Tierney is recognized for her outstanding advances in the reconstruction of past climate change and furthering the understanding of future climate change.

"Receiving this award signals that one of the nation's top research funders recognizes the urgency of understanding the Earth system as humans drive climate change," Tierney said. "It makes me feel like my research is important and really making a difference."

Her research focuses on understanding ancient climate change, including quantifying changes in global temperature, ocean temperature and the water cycle. The goal is to improve our understanding of what the future holds under climate change. She specializes in generating organic geochemical records of paleoclimate, derived from fossil molecules known as biomarkers that are preserved in sediments and rocks.

"Studying the past is important because it can narrow our projections for what climate will look like at the end of the century, and what sort of impacts humans will face," Tierney said.

Using novel modeling techniques combined with paleoclimate data assimilation, she has generated groundbreaking maps of past climate conditions and the system dynamics that produced the conditions. Her research has redefined the understanding of global temperature changes in the geologic past and developed a new quantitative understanding of temperature and climate sensitivity to past levels of carbon dioxide.

"Dr. Tierney has quickly made a name for herself in the climate sciences, and we couldn't be more proud that she has won this prestigious award," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "Not only is she the first person from this university to receive this honor, but also the first person in the climate sciences. This is a tremendous honor, and we're lucky to have her incredibly valuable expertise at our university."    

The NSF has been investing in climate change research for decades, helping scientists to collect long-term, continuous data and observations. Tierney's research has been made possible through NSF's investments in the dynamics and complexity of Earth processes to piece together the entire puzzle of climate change and create new, sustainable climate change solutions. 

"It is an absolutely incredible honor to receive the Waterman Award," Tierney said. "I am so humbled to share this recognition with leading researchers across all fields of science. I'm really grateful to NSF for the support, and I hope that my research will help society prepare for, and ultimately mitigate, human-caused climate change."

Tierney earned a bachelor's, master's and a doctorate in geology from Brown University. She has been at the University of Arizona since 2015. Tierney is a Packard Foundation Fellow, an American Geophysical Union Fellow and a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment report. 

In addition to a medal, Alan T. Waterman Award recipients each receive $1 million over five years for research in their chosen field of science.

"The funding from this award will provide key support for my students, postdocs and my lab manager, bolstering our ability to explore new research avenues," Tierney said. "In particular, this award will allow us to explore high-risk, high-reward ideas that have the potential to transform our understanding of past and future climate change."

The Waterman Award will be presented to all recipients at a ceremony during the National Science Board meeting in Washington, D.C., on May 5. The award, established by Congress in 1975, is named for Alan T. Waterman, NSF's first director.

Optical sciences researcher dishes up new method for measuring radio antennas The UArizona startup Fringe Metrology will make its technology available for academia and industry. Ryan Irene Cella and Paul Tumarkin April 21, 2022 Tech Launch Arizona


Joel Berkson
Doctoral student Joel Berkson uses a combination of laser projectors and cameras to create a 3D computer model of radio antenna surfaces. Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona
Science and Technology Adaptation College of Optical Sciences Determination Exploration Tech Launch Arizona

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Joel Berkson, a third-year doctoral student in the University of Arizona James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences and Steward Observatory, has developed a new way for precisely measuring the surfaces of radio antenna, which are used to collect and focus radio waves for astronomy and satellite communications.

These dish-shaped antennas, like the ones depicted in the 1997 movie "Contact" starring Jodie Foster, must be manufactured with an extremely high level of accuracy to work well. To ensure their accuracy, engineers measure the antenna surfaces using metrology, a technique that applies the science of measurement to manufacturing, instrumentation and calibration processes.

"People always want to make larger, more accurate antennas for radio telecscopes, and more of them," Berkson said. "If we can't figure out better ways to make them faster and more accurate, the cost and time it takes to measure each surface to ensure its quality will be prohibitive."

Existing methods for measuring curved surfaces of radio antennas and telescope mirrors involve placing stickers across the antenna or mirror surface and then using cameras to analyze the surface by looking at the stickers. Other methods involve physically probing the surface with a coordinate measuring machine. These techniques are limited to only measuring the number of points indicated by the stickers or touched by a physical probe; it is a manual, slow and often expensive process.

To make things even more complicated, sometimes the surfaces do not come out perfectly and need to be fixed and measured again, translating into more money and time spent.

Berkson's invention eliminates the need for stickers or physical touch. The method he developed uses a combination of laser projectors and cameras to create a 3D model of the surface. By rendering the actual surface shape as a computer model, the new process overcomes another limitation of the old methods; rather than being limited to measuring hundreds of points, it allows for the measurement of millions of points on a surface.

Tech Launch Arizona, the UArizona office that commercializes inventions stemming from university research, has worked with Berkson to patent the technology on behalf of the university and license it to Berkson's startup, Fringe Metrology. 

"It was particularly rewarding to see Joel's work, envisioning an approach to address a real-world challenge and transforming it into an elegant commercial solution," said Bruce Burgess, director of venture development at TLA. "Joel recognized the wealth of resources TLA offers researchers and was quick to work with our team."

"A lot of systems out there today are black-box systems and need customization to be useful in the field," Berkson said. "Ours is one system that can be easily configured to measure surfaces of different shapes and sizes. You can't do that with any other current technologies out there."

When Berkson realized existing metrology systems require the use of stickers to make measurements, he was inspired to take a problem-solving approach to simplifying the process.

"Stickers have been used across the board and are the standard and well-trusted," he said, "but as the demand for more accurate and complicated surfaces increases, the measurement requirements equally increase. The current methods are not as good as people want and need to be able to advance these systems."

Working with his co-inventor, Justin Hyatt, a senior research associate at Steward Observatory, Berskon began developing the invention with funding from the National Science Foundation to advance current methods for radio telescope manufacturing. He connected with the TLA commercialization team, which worked with him to develop the intellectual property for the invention. Berkson then started Fringe Metrology, licensed the invention from UArizona and has begun building a business around it.

The startup is developing specialized systems for a variety of surface metrology applications but initially will focus on the meticulous measurements needed for the manufacture of radio telescope panels.

"The radio telescopes like the ones you see in the movie 'Contact' are very precise and expensive to manufacture, and they need to be perfectly shaped to function correctly," Berkson said. "The company will initially focus on these high-value customers to develop the initial go-to-market product."

As Berkson focuses on growing his business, he hopes the technology can offer a solution for the current limitations in radio telescope manufacturing and contribute to the evolution of the industry.

"Ultimately," he said, "I'd like to see quicker, cheaper, higher quality measuring systems in every lab."

Freshwater habitats are fragile pockets of exceptional biodiversity, study finds Ponds, lakes, rivers and streams cover only a tiny fraction of Earth's surface, yet they are home to a comparatively large number of different species, according to a study led by University of Arizona ecologists. The findings have implications for conservation efforts around the globe. Daniel Stolte and Koda Benavidez April 21, 2022 University Communications


Amazon River photographed from the air
One of the world's longest rivers, the Amazon is known for its exceptional biodiversity. Contrary to conventional wisdom, which has associated species richness mostly with tropical regions, UArizona ecologists found that freshwater habitats in general tend to boast high biodiversity considering their tiny area compared to terrestrial and ocean habitats. Neil Palmer/CIAT (Wikimedia Commons)
Science and Technology College of Science

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Daniel Stolte

Science Writer, University Communications

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John J. Wiens

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Cristian Román-Palacios

Assistant Professor of Practice, School of Information

While much research has focused on the striking differences in biodiversity between tropical and temperate regions, another, equally dramatic, pattern has gone largely unstudied: the differences in species richness among Earth's three major habitat types – land, oceans and freshwater.

A new study led by ecologists at the University of Arizona reveals the origins of diverse animal and plant species richness in terrestrial, ocean and freshwater habitats at a global scale. It also explores the possible causes of these richness patterns.

Published in the journal Ecology Letters, the study was led by Cristian Román-Palacios, an assistant professor in the UArizona School of Information in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and John J. Wiens, a professor in UArizona Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in the College of Science. It was co-authored by Daniela Moraga-López, a doctoral student at Pontificia Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile.

"As far as we know, our paper is the first to provide a global analysis of biodiversity by habitat and provide possible explanations as to what might drive the observed patterns," Wiens said.

Despite oceans covering 70% of Earth's surface, about 80% of the plant and animal species are found on land, which accounts for only 28% of Earth's surface. Freshwater habitats cover a minute fraction of Earth's surface, about 2%, but have the highest animal species richness per area, the study revealed. 

More than 99% of known animal species were included in the analysis, as were all known plant species. The authors estimate that 77% of known living animal species inhabit land, 12% ocean habitats, and 11% freshwater habitats. Among plants, only 2% of species call the ocean home, and a mere 5% live in freshwater.

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Mexican Leaf Frog
A Mexican leaf frog, photographed near Alamos, Mexico. Like many frog species, it depends on ponds and swamps for breeding and reproduction. John J. Wiens

The authors were also interested in what scientists call phylogenetic diversity, which provides a measure of how closely or distantly related organisms are to each other on the tree of life. When the team looked at phylogenetic diversity per unit area of each habitat type, they found freshwater diversity to be at least twice as high as land and ocean habitat diversity, for both animals and plants. 

The high phylogenetic diversity per unit area in freshwater habitats highlights the importance of conserving freshwater ecosystems, Palacios said.

"The large-scale patterns of freshwater community composition resemble the process of creating mosaic art – where many groups in freshwater are like 'pieces' sourced from either land or marine ecosystems," he said. "Therefore, creating additional protections to freshwater habitats could help to efficiently conserve, at once, very divergent groups of animals and plants."

In contrast, animal and plant species in terrestrial habitats tend to represent only a few phyla, or taxonomic groups of organisms. Some examples of phyla include sponges, nematodes, mollusks and chordates - the group that contains vertebrates. This finding led the study authors to conclude that preserving freshwater habitats can protect more species and more evolutionary history than preserving the same amount of area on land or in the ocean.

"Insights into phylogenetic diversity afford us a great opportunity to preserve significant pieces of evolutionary history," Wiens said, adding that the distribution of phyla among habitats helps explain these patterns of phylogenetic diversity.


American alligator at Big Cypress State Park in Florida
An American alligator resting on a log in Florida's Big Cypress State Park. John Wiens

The researchers found that the observed patterns of species richness are best explained by differences in diversification rates among habitats, which are a measure of how many species originate and accumulate in a given amount of time. In other words, habitats where species proliferate more rapidly have greater biodiversity.
Diversification rates can be dependent on several different factors. But geographic barriers may be the most important for explaining differences in diversification rates among habitats, according to Wiens.

"Species may proliferate more rapidly on land than they do in the ocean or in freshwater because there are many more barriers to dispersal on land compared to the ocean, where organisms can move more freely," he said. "These barriers seem to help drive the origin of new species in all habitats in both plants and animals."

Alternative explanations, such as whether a habitat was colonized earlier or more frequently over time, were not supported.


Swamp habitat in Big Cypress State Park in Florida
Swamp habitat in Big Cypress State Park in Florida. John Wiens

"We were able to show that generally speaking, the oceans were colonized first, then species moved into freshwater habitats and lastly, onto land," Wiens said. "And that holds true for plants and animals. Therefore, the greater biodiversity of land cannot be explained by an earlier colonization of terrestrial habitats."

Biological productivity – in essence, the growth of plants – which has traditionally been considered one of the major drivers of global biodiversity patterns, turned out to have a much smaller effect than previously thought. 

"Overall productivity is similar between the ocean and land, which tells us that at the global scale, productivity is not the most important determinant of biodiversity," Wiens said.

Similarly, area does not appear to be a decisive factor, either, since the oceans have the greatest area but very limited species numbers, Wiens explained.

"We conclude that the rate of species proliferation might be the most important aspect in driving species richness across the planet." 

NASA gives green light for OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to visit another asteroid The extended mission, dubbed OSIRIS-APEX, will study the near-Earth asteroid Apophis, which will have a close encounter with Earth in 2029. Mikayla Mace Kelley April 25, 2022 University Communications

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Spacecraft firing thrusters near surface of asteroid
This is an artists illustration of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft firing thrusters near the surface of the asteroid Apophis. Heather Roper
Science and Technology College of Science Determination Experts Exploration OSIRIS-APEX OSIRIS-REx Science Space

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Mikayla Mace Kelley

Science Writer, University Communications

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Dani DellaGiustina

Lunar and Planetary Laboratory

Dante Lauretta

Lunar and Planetary Laboratory

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will swing by Earth to deliver a sample from asteroid Bennu on Sept. 24, 2023. But it won't clock out after that.

NASA has extended the University of Arizona-led mission, which will be renamed OSIRIS-APEX, to study near-Earth asteroid Apophis for 18 months. Apophis will make a close approach to Earth in 2029.

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Illustration of asteroid
Imaging scientists Dathon Golish created this simulated image of the view of near-Earth asteroid Apophis in the APEX camera, based on a shape model produced by JPL's Marina Brozović and her colleagues. UArizona/JPL/Arecibo

The University of Arizona will lead the mission, which will make its first maneuver toward Apophis 30 days after the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft delivers the sample it collected from Bennu back in October 2020. At that point, the original mission team will split – the sample analysis team will analyze the Bennu sample, while the spacecraft and instrument team transitions to OSIRIS-APEX, which is short for OSIRIS-Apophis Explorer.

Regents Professor of Planetary Sciences Dante Lauretta will remain principal investigator of OSIRIS-REx through the remaining two-year sample return phase of the mission. Planetary sciences assistant professor and OSIRIS-REx deputy principal investigator Dani DellaGiustina will then become principal investigator of OSIRIS-APEX. The extension adds another $200 million to the mission cost cap.

The mission team did an exhaustive search for potential asteroid targets. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was built for what's called a rendezvous mission, meaning instead of making a single flyby of an object and quickly snapping images and collecting data, it was designed to "get up close and personal with the object." DellaGiustina said. "Our spacecraft is really phenomenal at that."

"Apophis is one of the most infamous asteroids," DellaGiustina said. "When it was first discovered in 2004, there was concern that it would impact the Earth in 2029 during its close approach. That risk was retired after subsequent observations, but it will be the closest an asteroid of this size has gotten in the 50 or so years asteroids have been closely tracked, or for the next 100 years of asteroids we have discovered so far. It gets within one-tenth the distance between the Earth and moon during the 2029 encounter. People in Europe and Africa will be able to see it with the naked eye, that's how close it will get. We were stoked to find out the mission was extended."

OSIRIS-REx was launched in 2016 to collect a sample from Bennu that will help scientists learn about the formation of the solar system and Earth as a habitable planet. OSIRIS-REx is the first NASA mission to collect and return a sample from a near-Earth asteroid.

OSIRIS-APEX will not collect a sample, but when it reaches Apophis, it will study the asteroid for 18 months and collect data along the way. It also will make a maneuver similar to the one it made during sample collection at Bennu, by approaching the surface and firing its thrusters. This event will expose the asteroid's subsurface, to allow mission scientists to learn more about the asteroid's material properties.

The scientists also want to study how the asteroid will be physically affected by the gravitational pull of Earth as it makes its close approach in 2029.

They also want to learn more about the composition of the asteroid. Apophis is about the same size as Bennu – nearly 1000 feet at its longest point – but it differs in what's called its spectral type. Bennu is a B-type asteroid linked to carbonaceous chondrite meteorites, whereas Apophis is an S-type asteroid linked to ordinary chondrite meteorites.

"The OSIRIS-REx mission has already achieved so many firsts and I am proud it will continue to teach us about the origins of our solar system," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "The OSIRIS-APEX mission extension keeps the University of Arizona in the lead as one of the premier institutions in the world to study small bodies with spacecraft and demonstrates again our incredible capacity in space sciences."

DellaGiustina is also excited that the mission provides an excellent opportunity for early career scientists to gain professional development. OSIRIS-REx veterans will work closely with these early career scientists as mentors in the early mission phases. By the time the spacecraft arrives at Apophis, the next generation will step into leadership roles on OSIRIS-APEX.

"OSIRIS-APEX is a manifestation of a core objective of our mission to enable the next generation of leadership in space exploration. I couldn't be prouder of Dani and the APEX team," Lauretta said. "Dani first started working with us in 2005 as an undergraduate student. To see her take on the leadership of the mission to asteroid Apophis demonstrates the outstanding educational opportunities at the University of Arizona." 

From connected cars to oil pipelines: Engineering innovators aim to protect 'Internet of Things' UArizona startup BG Networks is using embedded security automation solutions to keep the world safe from cyberattacks. Ryan Irene Cella and Paul Tumarkin April 26, 2022 Tech Launch Arizona


Colin Duggan, Jerzy Rozenblit, Gary Gill, Roman Lysecky and Sam Winchenbach
The BG Networks team, from left to right: Colin Duggan, Jerzy Rozenblit, Gary Gill, Roman Lysecky and Sam Winchenbach. Paul Tumarkin/Tech Launch Arizona
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Around the world, countries are on the cyber offense. Researchers from the University of Arizona College of Engineering have invented new strategies to mitigate future cyberattacks by helping make cybersecurity for the "Internet of Things" more accessible for companies and organizations of all sizes. Based on the technology, they have launched a startup, BG Networks, to bring their technology from UArizona to the public.

The Internet of Things, or IoT, is made up of interconnected sensors and devices networked with computers. While personal items like smartwatches, smart doorbells and smart speakers are all part of this network, so are many of the technologies used in the management of utility companies and oil pipelines. And if those technologies are brought down, it has the potential to significantly impact the economy and society, making them prime targets for cyberattackers.

U.S. citizens experienced the realities of such attacks in summer 2021 when attackers targeted systems at the world's largest meat processor, JBS, as well as the computerized equipment that manages the Colonial Pipeline, a 5,500-mile-long pipeline system that transports 3 million barrels of fuel between Texas and New York every day. JBS paid an $11 million ransom to regain control of its systems, and the Colonial Pipeline Company paid a $4 million ransom to restore operations. Any network-connected system is vulnerable to such attacks, including industrial control systems, autonomous vehicles and the power grid.

UArizona researchers have developed a two-part technology – consisting of a Security Automation Tool and an Embedded Security Software Architecture – that allows engineers without cybersecurity backgrounds to implement complex security protocols to prevent such attacks. The team developed security automation tools that work with open-source software to allow engineers to add IoT cybersecurity functions such as encryption, authentication and secure software updates quickly and efficiently to their systems.

"Hundreds of thousands of bad actors are at work, and the United States has already seen its share of impactful attacks," said Roman Lysecky, UArizona professor of electrical and computer engineering and co-founder of BG Networks.

Lysecky developed the technology along with BG Networks co-founder and Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Jerzy Rozenblit, graduate student researcher Aakarsh Rao, former graduate student researcher Nadir Carreon, and professor Johannes Sametinger of Joannes Kepler University Linz in Austria.

"Implementing cybersecurity has always been a complex feat," Lysecky said. "We've developed tools that enable engineers to much more easily and quickly include cybersecurity in their applications."

The team worked with Tech Launch Arizona, the UArizona office that commercializes inventions stemming from university research and innovation, to protect the innovation and develop strategies and skills to position the startup for a successful launch.

"I've been so impressed with this concept and this team," said Tech Launch Arizona Assistant Vice President Doug Hockstad, who has a background in software. "The impact that this kind of innovation is positioned to have on society to protect the people and systems we depend upon aligns with the University of Arizona's goals for research – to create impact and improve lives."

"Our vision is to enable IoT security everywhere," said BG Networks co-founder and CEO Colin Duggan, who has 29 years of international leadership, marketing and management experience in the automotive, consumer, industrial and defense markets. "We aim to remove obstacles that prevent embedded engineers from including cybersecurity in their applications."

Experts predict this hurricane season will only be slightly above average This year marks the seventh consecutive hurricane season that is expected to be more active than normal. Mikayla Mace Kelley April 28, 2022 University Communications

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Hurricanes as seen from space
Hurricane Ida, Tropical Storm Julian and Tropical Depression Ten - which intensified into Tropical Storm Kate on August 30 - as shown from NOAA's GOES-16 satellite on August 29, 2021. NOAA
Science and Technology College of Science Experts Research Science Water

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Mikayla Mace Kelley

Science Writer, University Communications

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Xubin Zeng

Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences

For the seventh year in a row, University of Arizona hurricane forecasters say to prepare for an above-average hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30. However, this year isn't expected to be as active as recent years.

The experts' forecast, released this month, shows 14 named storms and seven hurricanes developing over the Atlantic Ocean. Three of those seven hurricanes are expected to develop into major hurricanes – which are classified as category 3 or above. The UArizona experts also predict an accumulated cyclone energy, or ACE, index of 129 units. The ACE index provides a value for the combined strength and duration of a storm.

These predictions are only slightly higher than the seasonal median since 1980, which is 13 named storms and seven hurricanes, two of which are major hurricanes, and an ACE index of 107 units.

Professor of atmospheric sciences Xubin Zeng and former graduate student Kyle Davis developed their predictive model in 2014. It has since become one of the most accurate in the world for seasonal hurricane forecasting. It combines seasonal forecasts of sea surface temperature from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts with machine learning and the researchers' own understanding of hurricanes.

When sea surface water is warm, storms can increase evaporation from the water, which creates moisture in the air. In combination with the right wind conditions, storms become hurricanes and the condensation of moisture releases heat energy to fuel the storm.

"Sea surface temperatures play a big role, and this year, the sea surface temperatures over the Atlantic Ocean are only slightly warmer than usual," said Zeng, who is also director of the university's Climate Dynamics and Hydrometeorology Center, and is the Agnes N. Haury Endowed Chair in Environment in the College of Science's Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences.

Pacific Ocean surface temperatures are nearly average this year as well, which also contributes to the near-average hurricane prediction.

Unlike other hurricane forecasters, Zeng and Davis don't use wind speed and direction data in their prediction models.

"We feel the seasonal forecasting of wind is not as reliable as prediction of seas' surface temperatures," Zeng said.

Zeng and Davis will update their predictions again in early June based on updated sea surface temperatures.

In 2021, the team predicted 18 named storms, eight hurricanes, four major hurricanes, and an ACE index of 137 units. These forecasts were remarkably accurate compared with the actual numbers in 2021 of 21 named storms, seven hurricanes, four major hurricanes and an ACE index of 146 units.

Each year, Zeng and Davis share their predictions with the public and government agencies for consideration.

"In the end, what matters is how many hurricanes make landfall," Zeng said. "With the growth in coastal population and regional wealth, even a single landfalling major hurricane could make substantial damage."

Researchers home in on Thera volcano eruption date Tree-ring, ice core and volcano experts teamed up to identify one of the most climatically impactful volcanic eruptions in 4,000 years – Aniakchak II. In the process, they narrowed down potential dates for the Thera volcano eruption. Mikayla Mace Kelley May 2, 2022 University Communications

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Two volcanic craters as seen from above
The volcanic craters of Aniakchak II (left) and Thera (right). Helga Weber/University of Bern
Science and Technology Anthropology College of Science Determination Experts Exploration Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research Research Science

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Mikayla Mace Kelley

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Read more about Pearson's work:


Person in lab with tree-ring cuttings
Charlotte Pearson Bob Demers/UArizona

A University of Arizona tree-ring expert is closer than ever to pinning down the date of the infamous Thera volcano eruption – a goal she has pursued for decades.

Charlotte Pearson, an associate professor in the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, is lead author of a new paper in PNAS Nexus that combines a mosaic of techniques to confirm the source of a volcanic eruption in 1628 B.C. While the eruption was previously thought to be Thera on the Greek island of Santorini, Pearson and her colleagues found instead that it was Alaskan volcano Aniakchak II.

The finding helps researchers narrow down when the actual Thera eruption took place.

Thera's massive eruption, known to have occurred sometime before 1500 B.C., buried the Minoan town of Akrotiri in more than 130 feet of debris. But the exact date of the eruption, along with its impact on climate, have been debated for decades.

If a volcanic eruption is large enough, it can eject sulfur and debris called tephra into the stratosphere, where both can be circulated to places very far away. The sulfur dioxide from the eruption that makes it into the upper atmosphere reflects heat from the sun and causes temperatures around the world to drop. The climatic shift is reflected in trees, which show reduced growth or frost rings that effectively mark the year in which the eruption occurred.

The sulfur and tephra can also rain down on Earth's poles, where they are preserved in layers of ice. When ice cores are analyzed, the amount of sulfate in them can also be used to estimate the likely impact of an eruption on climate. High-sulfate eruptions have greater potential to cause short-term shifts in climate. At the same time, the ice cores' tephra, which has a unique geochemical fingerprint, can be used to link the sulfur in the ice to an exact volcanic source.

THERA_Fig7_Charlotte Pearson.jpg

Tree rings
The dark ring in this cutting of California Bristlecone pine marks an area of frost damage caused by the rapidly cooling climate due to the large amount of sulfate released by what scientists confirm was Aniakchak II rather than Thera. This marker (1627 BC) first connected tree grow and volcanic climate response, and ignited the work to synchronize tree rings and ice cores. Charlotte Pearson

Pearson and her collaborators – which included Michael Sigl of the University of Bern and an international team of geochemists, ice core experts and tephra chronologists – aligned data from tree rings and from ice cores in Antarctica and Greenland to create a comprehensive record of volcanic eruptions across the period when Thera must have occurred – 1680 to 1500 B.C. They used sulfate and tephra evidence to rule out several of the events as potential Thera dates and used high-resolution techniques to geochemically confirm through the ice cores that the eruption recorded in1628 B.C. was Aniakchak II.

The exact Thera eruption date remains unconfirmed, but the team has narrowed it down to just a handful of possibilities: 1611 B.C., 1562-1555 B.C. and 1538 B.C.

"One of these is Thera," Pearson said. "We just can't confirm which one yet, but at least we now know exactly where to look. The challenge with Thera is that there's always been this discrepancy between multiple lines of dating evidence. Now that we know what the possible dates are, this evidence can be re-evaluated, but we still need a geochemical fingerprint to clinch it."

A blast from the past

As an undergraduate student in 1997, Pearson read two papers that not only sparked her interest in tree-ring science but also marked the starting point of the larger Thera date debate.

The first paper, written by UArizona tree-ring researchers Valmore LaMarche and Katherine Hirschboeck, identified frost damage in bristlecone pine tree-rings from California that corresponded to the year 1627 B.C. The other paper, by Queen's University's Mike Baillie and UArizona's Martin Munro, identified a period of very narrow tree-rings in oak trees from Ireland that started in the year 1628 B.C. Both tree-ring anomalies indicated the sort of abrupt, severe climatic shift that occurs when volcanoes spew sulfate into the stratosphere.

Both sets of authors linked the tree ring-anomalies to Thera because, at the time of the studies, Thera was the only known eruption in that approximate time period. But Pearson's latest paper confirms those tree-ring anomalies are actually evidence of a different, unusually high-sulfate eruption – Alaska's Aniakchak II volcano.

"We've looked at this same event that showed up in tree rings 7,000 kilometers apart, and we now know once and for all that this massive eruption is not Thera," Pearson said. "It's really nice to see that original connection resolved. It also makes perfect sense that Aniakchak II turns out to be one of the largest sulfate ejections in the last 4,000 years – the trees have been telling us this all along."

The Thera eruption hunt continues

Archaeological evidence has suggested the date of the Thera eruption is closer to 1500 B.C., while some radiocarbon dating has suggested it's closer to 1600 B.C.

"I favor the middle ground. But we are really close to having a final solution to this problem. It's important to stay open to all possibilities and keep asking questions," Pearson said.

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Ice cores
A: And ice core section from Greenland containing a record of volcanic sulfate. B: The ice is slowly melted and a variety of elements and chemical are simultaneously analyzed. Michael Sigl

"Building evidence in this research is best compared to criminal cases, where suspects must be shown to be linked to both the scene and time of the crime," Sigl said. "Only in this case, the traces are already more than 3,500 years old."

The study also confirms that any climatic impact from Thera would have been relatively small, based on comparisons of sulfate spikes in that period with those of more recent documented eruptions.

The next step is to home in on the possible Thera eruption years and extract further chemical information from the sulfur and tephra in the ice cores. Somewhere in one of those sulfates there might be one piece of tephra that would have a chemical profile matching Thera, Pearson said.

"That's the dream. Then I'll have to find something else to obsess over," she said. "For now, it's just nice to be closer than we have ever been before."

The study is part of a European Research Council-funded project led by Sigl at the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Bern in Switzerland. The project is named THERA, short for Timing of Holocene Volcanic Eruptions and their Radiative Aerosol Forcing. In addition to UArizona, the study was carried out by an international network of experts from the University of Bern, University of St. Andrews, Swansea University, University of Maine, South Dakota State University and University of Florence. Funding at UArizona was provided by the Malcolm H. Wiener Foundation.

Planetary science decadal survey prioritizes UArizona-led planetary defense mission A new decadal survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends NASA fully support NEO Surveyor, a space-based survey designed to discover and measure asteroids and comets that could pose an impact hazard to Earth. Amy Mainzer, a professor of planetary sciences, leads the effort.  Daniel Stolte and Koda Benavidez May 3, 2022 University Communications


An artist’s conception of a near-Earth asteroid orbiting the sun.
An artist’s conception of a near-Earth asteroid orbiting the sun. NASA/JPL
Science and Technology Astronomy College of Science Grand Challenges Lunar and Planetary Laboratory Research, Innovation & Impact Strategic Plan

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Daniel Stolte

Science Writer, University Communications

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Amy Mainzer

Lunar and Planetary Laboratory

An asteroid defense mission led by a University of Arizona planetary scientist is among the projects prioritized by a new decadal survey from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The survey identifies scientific priorities and opportunities and makes funding recommendations to maximize the advancement of planetary science, astrobiology and planetary defense in the next 10 years.

Titled "Origins, Worlds, and Life: A Decadal Strategy for Planetary Science and Astrobiology 2023-2032," the report identifies planetary defense – mitigating the risk of an asteroid hitting Earth – as a top priority. Planetary defense is part of an international cooperative effort to detect and track asteroids and comets that could pose a threat to life on Earth. It also is an element of NASA's planetary science endeavors concerned with human health and safety. The report's recommendations particularly focus on near-Earth objects, which are asteroids and comets that come within 1.3 times the distance between Earth and the sun.

Specifically, the newly released planetary science decadal survey recommends NASA fully support the development, timely launch and subsequent operation of NEO Surveyor, a dedicated, space-based mid-infrared survey designed to discover and measure asteroids and comets that could pose an impact hazard to Earth.


Portrait of Amy Mainzer
Amy Mainzer is a professor in the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and one of the world's leading scientists in asteroid detection and planetary defense.

NEO Surveyor is led by Amy Mainzer, a professor in the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and one of the world's leading scientists in asteroid detection and planetary defense. NEO Surveyor is a follow-on mission to NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or NEOWISE, space observatory. As principal investigator of NEOWISE, Mainzer has overseen the largest space-based asteroid-hunting project in history. Scheduled to launch in 2026, NEO Surveyor will greatly expand on what scientists have learned, and continue to learn, from NEOWISE. Development of NEO Surveyor is a key initiative of UArizona's strategic plan.

"We need to map out the locations and sizes of the asteroids and comets that could potentially impact Earth if we want to divert or deflect them," Mainzer said. "The decadal survey lays out a roadmap for ensuring that planet Earth has a robust plan for dealing with asteroid and comet impacts."

Following the successful completion of the NEO Surveyor and the DART mission –  NASA's first planetary defense mission, which aims to nudge an asteroid from its orbit – the planetary sciences decadal survey recommends that the next highest priority planetary defense demonstration mission should be a rapid-response, flyby reconnaissance mission targeting a NEO of 50 to 100 meters in diameter. NEOs in that size range are representative of the population of objects posing the highest probability of a destructive Earth impact. Such a mission should assess the capabilities and limitations of flyby characterization methods to better prepare for a short-warning time NEO threat, according to the report.

The recommendations by the steering committee for the decadal survey draw on input from the scientific community through the advice of six panels, hundreds of white papers, invited speakers, outreach to advisory groups and professional society conferences, and work with mission-design teams.

Among the report's other recommendations are two flagship missions, one for a probe to study the giant gas planet Uranus, and another to search for evidence of life on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Other recommendations for missions include a Centaur Orbiter and Lander, Ceres sample return, comet surface sample return, Enceladus multiple flyby, Lunar Geophysical Network, Saturn probe, Titan orbiter, and Venus In Situ Explorer. The report also prioritized the Mars Exploration Program and the Lunar Discovery Exploration Program.

The report, by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine's Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032 Steering Committee, was sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by Abraham Lincoln.



UArizona part of statewide collaboration that compiled 100,000 sequenced COVID genomes The Arizona COVID-19 Genomics Union, which includes UArizona, positions the state to play a role in the planned U.S. Pathogen Genomics Centers of Excellence.   May 3, 2022 University Communications


Illustration of a coronavirus particle
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Health Science and Technology College of Science COVID-19 Research

A massive effort to track the COVID-19 pandemic in Arizona over the past two years has resulted in the genomic sequencing of more than 100,000 samples of the COVID-19 virus by the Arizona COVID-19 Genomics Union, or ACGU.

The ACGU includes the Phoenix-based nonprofit Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, as well as the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University, Arizona State University and the Arizona Department of Health Services.

This joint enterprise provides a proof of concept for building a 21st-century infectious-disease surveillance system to help prevent, detect, monitor and overcome the next pandemic.

As a result of the collaboration, Arizona is playing a major role in a growing worldwide effort to use genomics to track infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Arizona will be competing to be part of the Pathogen Genomics Centers of Excellence, a national network funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that would expand and deepen infectious disease collaborations between U.S. public health agencies and universities.

"The AGCU has really exceeded my expectations from when we founded it," said Michael Worobey, one of the union's co-founders and head of the UArizona Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Worobey is world renowned for his work on viral pandemics.


Michael Worobey
Michael Worobey is a world-renowned expert on the evolution of viruses. Beatriz Verdugo/UANews

"We are among a small and elite group of U.S. states that have generated a full coronavirus genome sequence for about 1% of the total population," he added. "The future of preventing and controlling pandemics will hinge on the power of genomic epidemiology. Our system, our teamwork – the depth of our bench – means that we will continue to lead the way in these important efforts."

Genomic sequencing is the spelling out of the DNA code – or in the case of a virus, the RNA code – that makes up an individual organism. Human DNA is about 3 billion letters long, while the RNA of COVID is about 20,000 letters long. The letters of code can change, or mutate, each time the organism replicates, which in the case of COVID resulted in thousands of mutations and dozens of significant variants that changed the transmissibility and virulence of the virus.

"It is only by sequencing samples of the COVID virus – using the power of genomic technologies – that scientists here in Arizona, and our colleagues around the world, have kept track of all the mutations and subsequent COVID variants during this pandemic," said David Engelthaler, director of TGen's Pathogen and Microbiome Division, the institute's infectious disease branch in Flagstaff. The pandemic's weekly progression was documented on the Arizona COVID Sequencing Dashboard compiled by TGen.

"When it comes to genomics, compiling 100,000 sequences is huge," said Engelthaler, who supervised the collection and curation of Arizona's COVID genomes. "Never before has a feat like this been accomplished for an infectious pathogen, but it's really only the beginning of how we can use next-generation science and technology, in real time, to make a real difference."

"The 100,000 milestone represents a lot of hard work and coordination across all three state universities, TGen and ADHS (the Arizona Department of Health Services)," said Paul Keim, a TGen Distinguished Professor, the executive director of NAU's Pathogen and Microbiome Institute and one of the world's leading authorities on infectious diseases.

"Arizona was not left behind in tracking the variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID. As the global scientific community was identifying and tracking variants, Arizona was engaged and knew where we stood at all times," Keim said. "With our surveillance data, we could learn from global efforts, make predictions for Arizona, and respond to mitigate the pandemic as it arrived here."

ACGU provides critical data about Arizona

At the start of the pandemic in early 2020, TGen and Arizona's three publicly funded universities came together to form ACGU, an acronym that also stands for the four chemical letters of RNA. ACGU's expressed purpose is harnessing the power of state-of-the-art biotechnology and big data analysis to better understand how COVID evolves, how it is transmitted and how and where it moves through the general population.

The ACGU is one of many scientific groups across the globe working to track COVID through the rapid sharing of data and analysis, which has proved critical to the worldwide scientific, medical and public health understanding of the pandemic.

"Sequencing allows us to stay ahead of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as it evolves new variants, from the alpha variant to omicron and beyond," said Efrem Lim, assistant professor in ASU's Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics.

"This real-time surveillance makes a difference for public health responses. As scientists, we have a responsibility to care for our communities," said Lim, who helped accelerate rapid COVID sequencing and oversaw a team at ASU that has now sequenced more than 40,000 of those genomes. "The statewide ACGU team has worked together since the start of the pandemic. This has meant that Arizona has not been left in the dark. Arizona can count on us no matter what the future holds – in this pandemic or the next."

The Arizona COVID Sequencing Dashboard was developed and maintained by TGen for Arizona, the Arizona Department of Health Services and the CDC. Since its launch in February 2021, it has recorded more than 103,000 genomic sequences from Arizona COVID patients. The site has recorded more than 217,000 visits.

Researchers find link between Parkinson's gene and vocal issues that could lead to earlier diagnosis Neuroscientists found that higher levels of the alpha-synuclein protein in the brain can lead to changes in vocal production. Kyle Mittan May 4, 2022 University Communications Health Science and Technology BIO5 College of Medicine - Tucson College of Science Determination Experts Exploration

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Kyle Mittan

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Parkinson's disease is perhaps best known for its movement-related symptoms, particularly tremors and stiffness.

But the disease is also known to hinder vocal production, giving those with Parkinson's a soft monotonous voice. Those symptoms, research has suggested, often appear much earlier in the disease's development – sometimes decades before movement-related symptoms.

New research by University of Arizona neuroscientists suggests that a specific gene commonly associated with Parkinson's may be behind those vocal-related issues – a finding that could help lead to earlier diagnoses and treatments for Parkinson's patients.


Julie E. Miller
Julie E. Miller

The research was conducted in the lab of Julie E. Miller, an assistant professor of neuroscience and of speech, language, and hearing sciences in the College of Science.

"We have this big gap here – we don't know how this disease impacts the brain regions for vocal production, and this is really an opportunity to intervene early and come up with better treatments," said Miller, who also has joint appointments in the Department of Neurology and the Graduate Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience, and is a member of the UArizona BIO5 Institute.

The study was published Wednesday in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. César A. Medina, a former Ph.D. student in Miller's lab who is now a postdoctoral scholar at Johns Hopkins University, is the paper's lead author. Also involved in the research were Eddie Vargas, a former UArizona undergraduate student who will soon attend the College of Medicine – Tucson, and Stephanie Munger, a research professional in the Department of Neuroscience.

A unique, ideal model for studying human speech

To investigate any correlation between vocal changes and the Parkinson's-related gene – known as alpha-synuclein – the researchers turned to the zebra finch, a songbird native to Australia.

The birds are an ideal model for human speech and voice pathways for several reasons, Medina said. Young finches learn their songs from older, father-like male birds, much in the same way babies learn to speak by listening to their parents. The part of a finch's brain that deals with speech and language is also organized very similarly to its counterpart in the human brain.


César A. Medina
César A. Medina

"These similarities across behavior, anatomy and genetics allow us to use the zebra finches as a model for human speech and voice," Medina said.

To see how alpha-synuclein might affect vocal production in the birds, researchers first took baseline recordings of their songs. They then introduced a copy of the gene into some of the birds; other birds were not given the gene so researchers could compare the results. All the birds' songs were recorded again immediately after introducing the gene, and then one, two and three months later.

The researchers used computer software to analyze and compare the acoustic features of the songs over time, studying pitch, amplitude and duration of the songs to determine whether and when the birds' vocal production changed.

Initial findings showed that alpha-synuclein did affect song production. The birds with the gene sang less after two months, and they sang less at the start of a song session three months after receiving the gene. The vocalizations were also softer and shorter, findings similar to what is seen in the human disease.

Another step toward earlier diagnoses and treatments

To determine whether the effects on speech were connected to changes in the brain, the researchers zeroed in on a section of the brain called Area X. They found that there were higher levels of the alpha-synuclein protein in Area X, helping them establish that the gene did, in fact, cause the changes in the brain that led to changes in vocal production, Medina said.

This connection, he added, had been predicted in previous Parkinson's research, but it was not conclusive.

The next step, Miller said, is figuring out how to apply these findings to human data, which could provide more answers that lead to better Parkinson's diagnoses and treatments – ones that come long before movement-related symptoms tell a patient to visit a neurologist.

The long-term goal of the Miller Lab, she said, is to partner with other researchers and private companies to develop drugs that target alpha-synuclein and other genes associated with Parkinson's.

Doing so, Medina said, would mean "we could stop the progression of Parkinson's disease before it becomes a detrimental impediment to the quality of life for the patient."

This study was supported in part by funds from the Parkinson's and Movement Disorder Foundation, the University of Arizona's Accelerate for Success Program and Core Facilities Pilot Program, and departmental startup funds. The research was also supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health under award number R21NS123512. Medina's work was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under National Science Foundation award number DGE-1746060, the University of Arizona's Initiative for Maximizing Student Development under National Institutes of Health award number R25 GM 062584, and a University of Arizona Marshall Foundation Dissertation Scholarship. Vargas' work was supported by summer research funding through the University of Arizona Undergraduate Biology Research Program, the Border Latino American Indian Summer Exposure to Research program, the W.A. Franke Honors College and the Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science. 

NASA deputy administrator: UArizona a 'crown jewel' for the US During a visit to campus, NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy discussed some of the space agency's most ambitious and impactful space missions with the UArizona scientists who pursue them. Daniel Stolte May 6, 2022 University Communications


NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy during a visit to UArizona
"What makes this university unique is the same thing that makes NASA unique: its people." NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy speaks during a press conference at the University of Arizona on May 6, 2022. Chris Richards
Science and Technology College of Science Grand Challenges Research Research, Innovation & Impact Strategic Plan

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NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy visited the University of Arizona Friday to meet with Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell and eight campus researchers involved in some of the space agency's largest and most impactful missions. During a press conference immediately following the meeting, Melroy discussed the university's critical role in NASA projects.

Melroy recognized UArizona as "a huge and important partner for NASA, with a towering reputation in astronomy, planetary science and astrophysics, and world-ranked across all disciplines" and as a "crown jewel for the United States."

"As the world has become more competitive, and we are competing for technological capability around the world, our university system is still the envy of the rest of the world, and the University of Arizona is a critical piece of that," Melroy said.

She pointed out the numerous partnerships between NASA and the state of Arizona, which is ranked in the top 10 states for pursuing activities funded by the space agency, amounting to just over $900 million in economic impact and more than 5,000 jobs.

"Some of the most inspiring things and pictures that we have seen over the last couple of years have very strong roots right here," Melroy said, pointing to the James Webb Telescope, or JWST, as the most recent example. UArizona Regents Professor Marcia Rieke is the principal investigator for NIRCam, one of the space observatory's most important instruments.


Artist rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is poised to open a new chapter in understanding the history of the universe, in part thanks to the long-standing leadership of the University of Arizona in infrared astronomy. NASA

JWST will provide glimpses into the early universe, during a time when the first stars and galaxies formed, potentially unlocking some of the rules of how the universe works, Melroy said.

The former astronaut, who helped assemble the International Space Station, also shared her excitement about the UArizona-led asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx, and said she looks forward to getting the samples back to Earth next year.

The return of extraterrestrial samples, including moon samples, "are very much on NASA's mind right now," she said, fueled by ambitions to send astronauts back to the moon and, eventually, to Mars.

One of only two women to command a space shuttle, Melroy hinted at future scenarios in which "science is front and center" as humans and machines explore other worlds side by side, and she emphasized the critical mission that institutions like UArizona play in paving the way for such endeavors, particularly with regard to developing technology and educating the highly skilled workforce that will be up to such challenges.

Melroy said she was particularly impressed to hear that current students express an interest in studying the climate on other planets, driven by a desire to glean insights into better understanding our own planet and its potential transformations under the effects of a changing climate.

"The first person to set foot on Mars will be a scientist, and they're alive and in school today," she said.

NASA announced in April that Dani DellaGiustina, a UArizona alumna, would lead the OSIRIS-APEX mission – an extension of OSIRIS-REx mission that will visit near-Earth asteroid Apophis and, like OSIRIS-REx, yield fundamental knowledge about the origin of terrestrial planets and strategies to avoid potential asteroid impacts on Earth.

"The same thing that makes NASA unique," Melroy said, "is what makes UArizona unique: its people."

"The university has been dedicated to the highest-quality scientists, and it has been at the leading edge for a long time," she added. "Even when I was applying to grad schools, this was the place that you wanted to get into."


moon rock
U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly was instrumental in helping the university's Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum get a loan of a lunar rock sample from NASA's Apollo 15 mission. It's currently on display at the museum. Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum

While on campus, Melroy also expressed her gratitude to U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly's office for helping the university's Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum obtain a lunar rock sample that was picked up by astronaut Jim Irwin during the Apollo 15 mission.

The rock, which is on loan to the university, is currently on display at the museum.

"I think NASA can afford to give away a slice of that rock. because we're going back to get more," Melroy said.

During her visit, Melroy heard presentations from the following UArizona researchers: 

  • DellaGiustina, assistant professor of planetary sciences, deputy principal investigator and image processing lead scientist for NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, and principal investigator of OSIRIS-APEX, which will visit near-Earth asteroid Apophis.
  • Rieke, Regents Professor of Astronomy and principal investigator for the Near Infrared Camera, or NIRCam, instrument onboard NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.
  • Amy Mainzer, professor of planetary sciences and director of NASA's NEO Surveyor, a space-based survey designed to discover and measure asteroids and comets that could pose an impact hazard to Earth. 
  • Carlos Vargas, assistant astronomer at Steward Observatory and principal investigator for NASA's Aspera mission, which will study galaxy evolution with a space telescope barely larger than a mini fridge.
  • Kristopher Klein, assistant professor of planetary sciences and deputy principal investigator for NASA's HelioSwarm mission, a "swarm" of nine spacecraft that will set out to better understand plasma, the state of matter that makes up 99% of the visible universe.
  • Shane Byrne, professor of planetary sciences and co-investigator for the High Resolution Imaging Experiment, or HiRISE, camera onboard NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. 
  • Pierre Haenecour, assistant professor of planetary sciences and sample science co-investigator for OSIRIS-REx. 
  • Erika Hamden, assistant professor of astronomy and principal investigator of Hyperion, a mission designed to observe molecular hydrogen in our galaxy to better understand how stars form
Digital media & downloads Making sense of the nonsensical: Black holes and the simulation library The international Event Horizon Telescope collaboration has snapped a second image of a black hole – this time at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. But to give the image meaning, the collaboration had to compare it with black hole simulations. Mikayla Mace Kelley May 12, 2022 University Communications

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a row of super computers
A view between two rows of Frontera servers in the Texas Advanced Computing Center data center. Frontera is the fastest academic supercomputer in the world. UArizona's Chi-Kwan "C.K." Chan is the principal investigator the EHT-Frontera Large-Scale Community Partnerships, which provides more than 80 million core hours for the EHT to simulate black hole. Texas Advanced Computing Center
Science and Technology Astronomy Black Holes College of Science CyVerse Experts Exploration Research

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To learn more about the university's efforts to image a black hole, visit the UArizona Black Hole Experts page.

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After mobilizing more than 300 scientists and engineers to establish a network of synchronized telescopes that form an Earth-sized virtual telescope, the international Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration snapped the first-ever images of supermassive black holes. The first image, of the black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy, was released in 2019. The latest image, released Thursday, shows the black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy, called Sagittarius A*. 

But what happens after these images are captured?


Chi-Kwan Chan
Chi-Kwan Chan Chris Richards/University of Arizona

"Snapping an image is just the beginning. To really understand the object we're observing, we had to compare it to simulations," said Chi-Kwan "CK" Chan, a University of Arizona associate research professor in the College of Science's Steward Observatory. Chan serves as the secretary of the EHT Science Council and is a senior investigator for the international Black Hole PIRE Project, which works to develop the infrastructure to usher astronomical projects like EHT into the era of big data science.

Chan is also a leader of the EHT collaboration's theoretical modeling and interpretation efforts for Sagittarius A*, the subject of the latest photograph and a round scientific papers published by the EHT Collaboration in Astrophysical Journal Letters. He coordinated the fifth paper, which focuses on creating black hole simulations and turning them into synthetic images that can be compared with real observations to teach us something new about the black hole.

As a result of this process, EHT scientists determined that Sagittarius A* is likely spinning and has a magnetic field slightly stronger than a refrigerator magnet, which is enough to push away nearby gas. The gas falling into the black hole forms a disk that, from Earth, appears to be face-on rather than from the edge. This diffuse glowing disk is made up of super-heated gas, or plasma, and charged particles. The electrons are 100 times cooler than the ions in the plasma, and the disk rotates in the same direction the black hole spins. Also, only some of this material falls into the black hole. If Sagittarius A* was a person, it would consume a single grain of rice every million years.


A black hole
This is the first image of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. EHT Collaboration

Finding meaning

UArizona, together with the University of Illinois and Harvard University, led the effort to create the biggest collection of simulations to date, which EHT calls the simulation library. This library is made up thousands of data sets – containing information about how the plasma interacts with magnetic fields around black holes – and millions of simulated images. Each simulation assumes something different about the properties and characteristics of the black hole and its surrounding environment.

EHT scientists can compare each simulated image with the actual black hole image to find a match. The simulation that creates the snapshot with the closest match can teach us something about the actual black hole, including its plasma temperature and the strength of its magnetic field.

The simulation process involves using supercomputers to solve what's called general relativistic magnetohydrodynamic – or GRMHD – equations, which reveal the movement of material and energy around black holes within dramatically warped space and time. GRMHD simulations are similar to simulations used to understand how air flows around aircrafts, Chan said, but GRMHD simulations also factor in extreme forces of gravity as described by Einstein's theory of general relativity and the interaction between magnetic fields and plasma.

Unlike simpler equations, which can be solved with pencil, paper and time, GRMHD equations are much more complex, as they account for the constant feedback between magnetic fields and plasma, resulting in an ever-changing equation.

To create the simulation library, the EHT Collaboration needed 80 million CPU hours, or processing time, which is the equivalent of running 2,000 laptops at full speed for a full year. The collaboration ran the calculations to create the library with the National Science Foundation-funded Frontera supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, where Chan is principal investigator of the Frontera Large-Scale Community Partnerships allocation. With this resource, the team was able to finish the full library of simulations in two months.

"To compare simulations like this with EHT observations, we need to run additional calculations to translate the GRMHD data into images, too," Chan said. "Those kinds of calculations are called general relativistic ray tracing." 

The EHT was designed to detect a specific wavelength – 1.3 millimeters – of radio wave from the galactic center of a black hole. To simulate these radio waves and create images, scientists trace the path that light traveled back to the black hole, again using supercomputers. 

Chan led much of the ray tracing calculation efforts for Sagittarius A* through CyVerse, a national cyberinfrastructure based at UArizona, and the NSF-funded Open Science Grid, a consortium for the computation of large amounts of data. The UArizona team not only spearheaded the effort to acquire the computational resources to run these simulations, but they also created the software that facilitated the calculations.

The final product is many simulated movies and simulated images of a black hole produced by different assumptions about the underlying physics. The team then compares those movies and images with real black holes.

More to learn

UArizona students played an important role in making the comparison possible. Yuan Jea Hew, a recent graduate who studied astronomy, and Anthony Hsu, a sophomore studying computer science and applied mathematics, developed data analysis algorithms to make comparison possible.

The collaboration relied on 11 different tests that the black hole simulations had to pass in order to sufficiently match the real black hole.

"It is remarkable that we understand Sagittarius A* so well that we have some models pass 10 out of the 11 tests," Chan said.

The tests considered variables such as brightness of certain wavelengths, image size, and the size and width of the glowing ring surrounding the black hole.

"However, no single model passed all 11 tests," Chan said. The test that was hardest for the models to beat was the variability, which measures how much the black hole changes from moment to moment. The simulations are more variable than the real Sagittarius A*.

"No matter how long we run the simulations to let them settle down, most of the simulations still failed that test," Chan said. "They don't quite match the reality, but I think this is more exciting than if everything simply worked out. Now, we can learn some new physics and understand our own black hole better."

The UArizona faculty members working to understand black holes have been tackling this challenge for decades and were part of the research groups that identified the black hole at the center of the Milky Way and the one at the center of Messier 87 galaxy as ideal targets of study. The university also contributed two of the eight telescopes in the EHT array used to create these images – the Sub-Millimeter Telescope on Mount Graham in Arizona and the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica. In 2019, UArizona also added the 12-meter telescope on Kitt Peak in Arizona to the array.

In all, 36 UArizona researchers, graduate students and undergraduate students are involved in the EHT Collaboration, including professors of astronomy Dimitrios Psaltis, Feryal Özel, Dan Marrone and research professor and astronomer Remo Tilanus. Astronomy department head Buell Jannuzi serves on the EHT board.

Black Hole GIF 720.gif

Ray traced images of Sagittarius A*
The EHT Collaboration created a flurry of possible images of Sagittarius A* using ray tracing, a technique that predicts who black holes would look like based on Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. The images shown here were created by UArizona's Chi-kwan Chan on CyVerse and Open Science Grid and visualized by University of Illinois' Ben Prather, as part of a larger simulation library assembled by EHT's Theory Working Group. EHT Collaboration
Digital media & downloads UArizona astronomers lead efforts that reveal the black hole at the heart of our galaxy The first image of the black hole located at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy, called Sagittarius A*, was unveiled Thursday by the international Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration. The discovery would not have been possible without the groundwork and heavy lifting provided by UArizona scientists and facilities. Daniel Stolte, University Communications, and Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration May 12, 2022


Image of Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A* for short), the first direct visual evidence of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy.
This image of Sagittarius A* is the first direct visual evidence of the presence of a supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. It was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope, an array of radio telescopes named after the "event horizon," the boundary of the black hole beyond which no light can escape. EHT Collaboration
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Daniel Stolte

Science Writer, University Communications

Mikayla Mace Kelley

Science Writer, University Communications

To learn more about the university's efforts to image a black hole, visit the UArizona Black Hole Experts page.

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Astronomers have unveiled the first image of the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. This result provides overwhelming evidence that the object is indeed a black hole and yields valuable clues about the workings of such giants, which are thought to reside at the center of most galaxies. The image was produced by a global research team called the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, using observations from a worldwide network of radio telescopes. Researchers at the University of Arizona played a leading role in the effort, providing two of the eight telescopes used to make the observations and performing data analysis that resulted in the image unveiled Thursday.


four people standing together
From left: UArizona researchers Dimitrios Psaltis, Feryal Özel, Chi-Kwan Chan and Dan Marrone are all members of the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration. Chris Richards/University of Arizona

The image is a long-anticipated look at the massive object that sits at the very center of our galaxy. Scientists had previously seen stars orbiting around something invisible, compact and very massive at the center of the Milky Way. This strongly suggested that the object – known as Sagittarius A*,  or Sgr A* (pronounced "sadge-ay-star") – is a black hole, and the new image provides the first direct visual evidence of it.

Although we cannot see the black hole itself, because it is completely dark, glowing gas around it reveals a telltale signature: a dark central region called a "shadow," surrounded by a bright ringlike structure. The new view captures light bent by the powerful gravity of the black hole, which is 4 million times more massive than the sun.

"We were stunned by how well the size of the ring agreed with predictions from Einstein's theory of general relativity," said EHT project scientist Geoffrey Bower from the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan. "These unprecedented observations have greatly improved our understanding of what happens at the very center of our galaxy and offer new insights on how these giant black holes interact with their surroundings."

The EHT team's results are published today in a special issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.


The Submillimeter Telescope, on Mount Graham in Arizona, is one of the eight among the Event Horizon Telescope array
The Submillimeter Telescope, on Mount Graham in Arizona, is one of eight telescopes in the Event Horizon Telescope array that made it possible to capture the black hole image. It's one of two in the array integrated by the University of Arizona. Paul Schulz

Because the black hole is about 27,000 light-years away from Earth, it appears to us to have about the same size in the sky as a donut on the moon. To image it, the team created the powerful EHT, which linked together eight existing radio observatories across the planet to form a single "Earth-sized" virtual telescope. The EHT observed Sgr A* on multiple nights, collecting data for many hours in a row, similar to using a long exposure time on a camera.

The Submillimeter Telescope on Mount Graham in Arizona and the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica – both under the leadership of Dan Marrone, a professor of astronomy and an astronomer at the UArizona College of Science's Steward Observatory – proved that an Earth-sized telescope would work. Under the leadership of Chi-kwan "C.K." Chan, an associate research professor at Steward, the EHT team at UArizona developed powerful computational models capable of predicting what sources like Sgr A*, which change over time, would look like in the sky.

(Read more about the university's EHT involvement and the significance of the latest image in the article "Black hole scientist: Wherever we look, we should see donuts")


The South Pole Telescope
The South Pole Telescope is located at the National Science Foundation's Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica, the most extreme location of the eight telescopes in the Event Horizon Telescope array during the 2017 observation run. It is one of two in the array integrated by the University of Arizona. Junhan Kim/University of Arizona

The Sgr A* image breakthrough follows the EHT Collaboration's 2019 release of the first image of a black hole, called M87*, at the center of the more distant Messier 87 galaxy.

The two black holes look remarkably similar, even though our galaxy's black hole is more than 1,000 times smaller and less massive than M87*.

"We have two completely different types of galaxies and two very different black hole masses, but close to the edge of these black holes they look amazingly similar," said Sera Markoff, co-chair of the EHT Science Council and a professor of theoretical astrophysics at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. "This tells us that general relativity governs these objects up close, and any differences we see further away must be due to differences in the material that surrounds the black holes."

This achievement was considerably more difficult than for M87*, even though Sgr A* is much closer to us, explained Chan.

"The gas in the vicinity of the black holes moves at the same speed – nearly as fast as light – around both Sgr A* and M87*," he said. "But where gas takes days to weeks to orbit the larger M87*, in the much smaller Sgr A* it completes an orbit in mere minutes. This means the brightness and pattern of the gas around Sgr A* was changing rapidly as the EHT Collaboration was observing it – a bit like trying to take a clear picture of a puppy quickly chasing its tail."

The researchers had to develop sophisticated new tools that accounted for the gas movement around Sgr A*. While M87* was an easier, steadier target, with nearly all images looking the same, that was not the case for Sgr A*. The image of the Sgr A* black hole is an average of the different images the team extracted, finally revealing the giant lurking at the center of our galaxy for the first time.

The effort was made possible through the ingenuity of more than 300 researchers from 80 institutes around the world that together make up the EHT Collaboration. In addition to developing complex tools to overcome the challenges of imaging Sgr A*, the team worked rigorously for five years, using supercomputers to combine and analyze data, all while compiling an unprecedented library of simulated black holes to compare with the observations.

(Read more about UArizona's role in the simulation library in the article "Making sense of the nonsensical: Black holes and the simulation library.")

"This is an exciting day for astrophysics, for the University of Arizona and for all of those fascinated and curious about our galaxy," said Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell, UArizona senior vice president for research and innovation. "This effort highlights not just the immense complexity of and commitment toward such a discovery, but also the ingenuity of our University of Arizona scientists and the more than 300 other researchers from dozens of institutions around the world that together make up the EHT Collaboration."

A founding partner of the EHT Collaboration, UArizona has provided significant resources and leadership in terms of the EHT's footprint, intellectual contributions and publications. In the early days of the project, the National Science Foundation funded the EHT with $28 million, a large portion of which was awarded to UArizona. Dimitrios Psaltis, UArizona professor of astronomy and physics and principal investigator of the international Black Hole PIRE Project, served as the founding project scientist. Remo Tilanus, a research professor and astronomer at Steward Observatory, serves as operations manager of the Event Horizon Telescope.


The main image of Sgr A* was produced by averaging together thousands of images created using different computational methods. The images can also be clustered into four groups based on similar features. These images are shown here at the bottom.
The main image of Sgr A* was produced by averaging together thousands of images created using different computational methods. Representations from four image clusters are shown in the bottom row. Thousands of images fell into each of the first three clusters, which show a ring structure. The fourth and smallest cluster contained only hundreds of images that did not appear ring-like. EHT Collaboration

Scientists are particularly excited to finally have images of two black holes of very different sizes, which offers the opportunity to understand how they compare and contrast. They have also begun to use the new data to test theories and models of how gas behaves around supermassive black holes. This process is not yet fully understood but is thought to play a key role in shaping the formation and evolution of galaxies.

"Now we can study the differences between these two supermassive black holes to gain valuable new clues about how this important process works," said EHT scientist Keiichi Asada from the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan. "We have images for two black holes – one at the large end and one at the small end of supermassive black holes in the universe – so we can go a lot further in testing how gravity behaves in these extreme environments than ever before."

Progress on the EHT continues: A major observation campaign in March 2022 included more telescopes than ever before. The ongoing expansion of the EHT network and significant technological upgrades will allow scientists to share even more impressive images as well as movies of black holes in the near future.

Feryal Özel, professor of astronomy and physics at UArizona's Steward Observatory, has been a member of the EHT Science Council since its inception and has led the modeling and analysis group.

"We've gotten into everything from very basic theoretical analytic models, all the way to extremely complex, large computational efforts," she said. "To do this kind of work, you need new hardware, new types of algorithms and new types of models."

EHT is a very organic collaboration, according to Özel, with partners bringing their own expertise, resources and telescopes in the face of limited funding. UArizona has led many of these efforts, she added.

As early as the late 1990s, Özel and Psaltis –  concurrently with another team that included Fulvio Melia, a professor in the Department of Physics – undertook the first studies exploring the feasibility of taking a picture of Sgr A*. In November 2012, Psaltis, Marrone and Özel hosted the inaugural meeting of the Event Horizon Telescope in Tucson, which established the worldwide collaboration.

"Many of the early ideas came out of here, the computational tools and infrastructure for the simulation library came out of here, the proof of principle for testing Einstein’s theory came out of here," Psaltis said. "Everything, from running the telescopes to analyzing the data, is a collective effort. Each one of us has their hands in basically everything, and we made it work."

Digital media & downloads Black hole scientist: 'Wherever we look, we should see donuts' The Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration has unveiled the first image of the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. UArizona researchers have played a leading role in making the imaging of black holes a reality. Daniel Stolte May 12, 2022 University Communications


Ray traced images of Sagittarius A*
The EHT Collaboration created a flurry of images of Sagittarius A*, using ray tracing, a technique that visualizes the properties of the black hole based on data collected with the radio telescope array and predictions made by Einstein's theory of general relativity. The images shown here were created by UArizona's Chi-kwan Chan. Ben Prather/EHT Theory Working Group/Chi-Kwan Chan
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Daniel Stolte

Science Writer, University Communications

Mikayla Mace Kelley

Science Writer, University Communications

Discovering something for the second time doesn't usually have scientists jump out of their seats with excitement. But that's exactly what happened in the case of Sgr A* (pronounced "sadge-ay-star"), the second black hole imaged.

In 2019, the image of M87*, a supermassive black hole in a galaxy more than 50 million light-years from Earth, graced the cover pages of virtually every news outlet across the world. It was the first time an image of a black hole had ever been taken. On Thursday, the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration presented the second image of such an object – this time of a black hole located at the center of our own Milky Way.

To the casual observer, the two images of an orange glowing ring surrounding a black shadow look almost indistinguishable. Yet, it is precisely this fact that has astrophysicists gushing with awe.

"I wish I could say that when we obtained the first image of a black hole three years ago, it didn't get any better, but this is actually better," said EHT Science Council member Feryal Özel, a professor of astronomy and physics and associate dean for research at UArizona College of Science's Steward Observatory. "We see a bright ring surrounding complete darkness, the telltale sign of a black hole. Now, we can confirm we are looking directly at the point of no return."


Feryal Özel and Dimitrios Psaltis
Feryal Özel and Dimitrios Psaltis represent two of the 36 University of Arizona researchers, graduate students and undergraduate students involved in the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration Chris Richards/University of Arizona

A black hole love affair

Özel said she "fell in love" with Sgr A* 20 years ago. She was a graduate student then, working on her dissertation at Harvard University, when she decided to tackle a challenge that few deemed possible to even think about: What would it take, she wondered, to actually look at a black hole directly? What would we see? Would we see anything?

Her research culminated in a seminal paper, which she published in 2000 with Dimitrios Psaltis, a UArizona professor of astronomy and physics and principal investigator of the international Black Hole PIRE Project. In that paper and a follow-up paper published in 2001, she identified M87*, the first black hole ever to be imaged, and Sgr A* as the two ideal black holes that presented even a remote chance of having their pictures taken. This contributed to the groundwork for an Earth-sized observatory that is now the Event Horizon Telescope.

Because M87* is 1,500 times more massive but 2,000 times farther away than Sgr A*, the two appear roughly equal in size in the sky. But despite the fact that they look almost identical, they are entirely different beasts.

M87* boasts a mass of 6 billion suns and is of gargantuan size. Our entire solar system would fit inside its event horizon, also known as a black hole's point of no return. Sgr A*, located a mere 25,000 light-years from Earth, is puny by comparison. At "only" 4 million solar masses, it is small enough to fit into the orbit of Mercury, the planet closest to the sun. If the two black holes were lined up for a photo op, M87* would fill the frame, while Sgr A* would disappear entirely. And while M87* voraciously devours surrounding matter, perhaps entire stars, and launches a jet of energetic particles that torches across its galaxy, Sgr A*'s appetite is minimal in comparison; if it were a person, it would consume the equivalent of a grain of rice every million years, according to the researchers.


Feryal Özel, Chi-Kwan Chan and Dimitrios Psaltis
UArizona EHT scientists Feryal Özel, Chi-Kwan Chan and Dimitrios Psaltis discuss imaging data taken with the virtual, Earth-sized EHT Telescope. Chris Richards/University of Arizona

One of the most fundamental predictions of Einstein’s theory of gravity, Psaltis said, is that the image of a black hole scales only with its mass. A black hole 1,000 times smaller in mass than another will have a very similar image that will just be 1,000 times smaller. The same is not true for other objects, Psaltis explained.

"In general, small things typically look very different from big things, and that's no coincidence," he said. "There is a good reason an ant and an elephant look very different, as one has a lot more mass to support than the other."

In other words, nature's laws of scale dictate that when two entities are of vastly different sizes, they typically look different from each other. Black holes, in contrast, scale without changing their appearance. If they were elephants, they would all look like elephants, whether they were as big as a typical elephant or as tiny as an ant.

Their stark simplicity is what makes the two black hole images so important, Psaltis explained, because they confirm what until now had only been predicted by theory: They appear to be the only objects in existence that only answer to one law of nature – gravity.

"The fact that the light appears like a ring, with the black shadow inside, tells you it's purely gravity," Psaltis said. "It's all predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity, the only theory in the cosmos that does not care about scale."

If scientists could take a picture of a truly small black hole of about 10 solar masses – which is not possible, because even the Earth-sized EHT does not have the necessary resolution power – and compare it to M87*, which has 6 billion times the mass of the sun, the two would look very similar, according to Psaltis.

"Wherever we look, we should see donuts, and they all should look more or less the same," he said, "and the reason this is important – besides the fact that it confirms our prediction – is that nobody likes it. In physics, we tend to dislike a world where things don't have an anchor point, a defined scale."


Image of Sgr A* in the Milky Way above radio telescopes of the Atacama Large Array,.
The Milky Way above the Atacama Large Array, a network of radio telescopes in Chile that is part of the Earth-sized Event Horizon Telescope. The insert shows the donut-like image of the black hole Sgr A* at its location in the constellation of Sagittarius. ESO/José Francisco Salgado (, EHT Collaboration

The 'Goldilocks black holes'

Black holes are such alien objects that even Albert Einstein struggled to reconcile their existence. Their gravitational pull is so strong not even light can escape, making them impossible to see by definition. The only reason astronomers were able to take these pictures is because they used radio telescopes that detect electromagnetic waves emitted by gas swirling around the black hole.

"If you were in space looking at the black hole, you would see absolutely nothing," Özel said. "The glow is in wavelengths the eye can't see."

That is why M87* and Sgr A* were identified as the only feasible targets for the Event Horizon Telescope in the publication Özel and Psaltis authored more than 20 years ago.

"You could say both are 'Goldilocks of black holes,'" Özel said. "Their environments are just right, and that's why we can see them."

To astrophysicists like Özel and Psaltis, black holes are natural laboratories that allow them to test general relativity and may even bring them closer to a theory unifying gravity with quantum mechanics, which until now has remained elusive.

"Getting to the image wasn't an easy journey," said Özel, who has been a member of the EHT Science Council since its inception and who has led the modeling and analysis group. It took a globe-spanning collaboration, several years, petabytes of data and more involved algorithms than had been dedicated to most scientific endeavors before, to analyze and confirm the final image of Sgr A*.

Moving forward, the EHT Collaboration is particularly interested in how black holes change over time, Özel said.

"If you looked at the source one day versus the next, or one year versus the following year, how would that change, and how much light would it emit in different wavelengths?" she said. "What could we predict about that? And how could we use our observations to understand that black hole's environment?

"One of the key points of this collaborative effort," Özel said, "is to test general relativity and find out where its limit is, if there is one."

UArizona innovation generated $1.6B in economic output over 5 years A new report indicates that startups and business generated through Tech Launch Arizona at the University of Arizona supported over 2,500 jobs and $561 million in labor income between fiscal years 2017 and 2021. Paul Tumarkin May 18, 2022 Tech Launch Arizona


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The Refinery, a new building at the UA Tech Park at The Bridges, is Tech Launch Arizona's new home.
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A new report indicates that startups and business generated through Tech Launch Arizona at the University of Arizona supported over 2,500 jobs and $561 million in labor income between fiscal years 2017 and 2021.

Tech Launch Arizona, the university office that commercializes inventions stemming from UArizona research and innovation, has produced over $1.6 billion in economic activity since 2016, according to the report, released Wednesday.

The report, produced by Rounds Consulting Group and titled "The Economic Impacts of Tech Launch Arizona," outlines the economic impacts generated by TLA for the five-year period from fiscal year 2017 through fiscal year 2021. It also projects impact for the next 10 fiscal years, from fiscal year 2022 through fiscal year 2031.

The top findings of the report indicate that between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2021, TLA activities generated:

  • $1.61 billion in economic output
  • $561 million in labor income
  • $59 million in tax revenues

The report also indicates that TLA and its associated business activities supported an estimated 2,600 jobs as of fiscal year 2021. Over the most recent five-year period, TLA created 800 new jobs.

The report projects that from fiscal year 2022 through fiscal year 2031, TLA activities will create an additional 1,000 jobs, bringing the total to 3,500 jobs, and generate:

  • $4.7 billion in economic output
  • $1.6 billion in labor income
  • $172 million in tax revenues

"The impact of TLA on the local economy has grown and is a significant contributor to the region’s economic well-being. Our review indicates that this growth will continue throughout the remainder of this decade and beyond," Jim Rounds, co-author of the report, said.

"With their leadership, the Tech Launch Arizona team has grown its impact each and every year. They've engaged more faculty, staff and students as entrepreneurial inventors than ever before in the history of the University of Arizona, and have worked to patent thousands of inventions on behalf of the university," University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins said in a video message about TLA's impact. "They've worked diligently to license them to companies that can take them forward."

UArizona Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell said the university's commitment to innovation and growth in commercialization and impact will continue.

"The innovation ecosystem at the University of Arizona is a robust and integral part of our mission to enrich life for all, allowing us to translate cutting-edge research into market-ready solutions," Cantwell said. "By fostering an entrepreneurial spirit across the university, advancing the creation of startup companies, and licensing University of Arizona inventions to existing companies that can take them forward, we're able to meaningfully benefit people across Arizona and around the world."

The impact calculations stem from the cumulative results of three categories of activity. The first category is the activity generated by startup companies the university has launched to commercialize inventions developed by UArizona faculty, researchers and staff. By the university's definition, a startup is a company founded to commercialize a technology invented by UArizona employees – such as faculty, staff, or graduate students – that has licensed the intellectual property for the invention from the university to take it forward into the marketplace. In the last 10 years, TLA has launched over 125 startups; 83% are still in business and over 80% are operating in Arizona. These startups create new jobs, generate tax income and enrich the community in myriad ways.

The second category represents the impact generated by the more than 450 licenses through which UArizona inventions are being brought to the marketplace by previously existing companies. One example is a trifocal lens developed in the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences that the university licensed to health care company Alcon.

The third category of impact activity stems from the daily work of Tech Launch Arizona staff and operations of the office.

"This news is a fantastic way to kickoff our 10th anniversary celebration, where we're reflecting on what TLA has accomplished since it was founded in late 2012," said TLA Assistant Vice President Doug Hockstad. "Add to that the projection over the next decade, and it's both humbling and energizing to see the impact we foresee going forward."

UArizona will develop and test balloon-borne payloads at new Mission Integration Lab Construction has begun on a tall, hangar-like "high bay," where researchers and students can work on instruments, telescopes and high-altitude balloon technology.  Daniel Stolte May 17, 2022 University Communications


NASA's Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory II, or STO-2, being launched in Antarctica.
NASA's Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory II, or STO-2, being launched in Antarctica. STO-2 is a balloon-borne mission designed to study the gas and dust between the stars, known as the interstellar medium. Abram Young/University of Arizona
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Research, Innovation and Impact

At the University of Arizona, the edge of space is closer than it may seem. Just a few minutes south of main campus by car, to be exact. There, at the University of Arizona Tech Park at The Bridges, a new "high bay" facility under construction will allow researchers and engineers to build and test hardware for experiments and missions designed to fly at extremely high altitudes sometimes referred to as the "edge of space," a fuzzy, ill-defined transition zone between Earth's atmosphere and space. 

Carol Stewart, associate vice president of Tech Parks Arizona, said the facility was designed with the specific purpose of accommodating large pieces of flight hardware, such as research platforms mounted on balloon-borne gondolas or small payloads for space missions. Officially named the Mission Integration Laboratory, or MIL, the tall, hangar-like building will feature an overhead crane and have space for an environmental chamber to simulate conditions at the edge of space.


Construction of the Mission Integration Lab is underway at the University of Arizona Tech Park at The Bridges
Construction of the Mission Integration Lab is underway at the University of Arizona Tech Park at The Bridges. Jessa Turner/Tech Parks Arizona

Here, researchers and students can work on instruments, telescopes and high-altitude balloon technology. The facility will make UArizona even more competitive for top-dollar research missions such as NASA's Long Duration Balloon flight missions, and will help attract corporations looking to advance their tech through public-private partnerships.

"We have a proud history of being a world-leading institution in astronomical research, and the new Mission Integration Lab is going to help us sustain and grow our research programs in the coming decades," said Buell Jannuzi, director of Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory in the UArizona College of Science. "In particular, the Mission Integration Lab, with its spacious high bay, is perfect for integrating the instruments, telescopes and high-altitude balloons that together will meet the demands of NASA's ongoing program of Long Duration Balloon flight missions. This facility will help our talented faculty win the right to lead more of these missions, which can be at the level of tens of millions in contracts to the university."

Floating at the edge of space

Balloon-borne missions fill an important niche between ground-based observatories and space telescopes, providing an ideal way to deploy telescopes and other instruments to altitudes where they experience less interference from Earth's atmosphere without necessitating a full-blown space mission, Jannuzi explained.

"One hundred twenty thousand feet is not exactly outer space, but it's as close as we can get there without spending a huge amount of money," he said, "and for many science objectives, that's all you need."

Dan Marrone is one of several UArizona researchers pursuing balloon-borne astronomy. He is a co-investigator on the Terahertz Intensity Mapper, or TIM, a NASA-funded balloon mission designed to create a giant map of galaxies over 5 billion years of cosmic history. His research team helps develop an imaging spectrometer capable of detecting extremely faint galaxies in the "cosmic afternoon," the time when star formation in the universe was slowing down from its peak 10 billion years ago.

"The MIL allows us to assemble and thoroughly test the TIM payload so that we're ready to make it work in a short Antarctic summer when we have to fly it. This will be the first place that we put together the whole 5,000-pound payload that will be going to the edge of space," Marrone said.

Inside the tall hangar, the team of scientists and engineers will be able to suspend the entire balloon payload, which is almost 30 feet tall, from an overhead crane. They will assemble it, test it and let it drive itself under its own power, he explained.

Once the instrument is built, Marrone and his team will take it to Mount Graham near Safford, about three hours east of Tucson, and mount it to the Large Binocular Telescope in a simulated "test flight" at an altitude of 10,000 feet, high enough for the atmosphere to allow through a little of the far-infrared light TIM sees. Next will be an actual test flight on a balloon in New Mexico, and then the TIM instrument will be shipped to McMurdo Station in Antarctica to be prepared for launch, which is currently slated for late 2024. Suspended underneath a giant balloon, the telescope will ride a seasonal wind vortex that will take the observatory on a circular flight trajectory over Antarctica at a 24-mile altitude, from where it will observe the night sky, unobstructed by much of Earth's atmosphere. 

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Scientists and engineers perform a hang test of the payload for the balloon-borne Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory II.
Scientists and engineers perform a hang test of the payload for the balloon-borne Stratospheric Terahertz Observatory II. Craig Kulesa/University of Arizona

Another balloon-borne observatory spearheaded by UArizona is GUSTO, which is led by Christopher Walker, a professor of astronomy with joint appointments in the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences and College of Engineering. Short for Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory, the mission is funded by NASA and has been approved for launch in December 2023. GUSTO will carry an infrared telescope to study the life cycle of stars in the interstellar medium, from their birth out of condensing molecular clouds in stellar nurseries to their evolution and death to their reseeding the interstellar medium with the ingredients for new stars.  

Stadium-sized balloons

"These telescopes are actually pretty big – ours is 7 feet in diameter – and they tend to work at wavelengths that are absorbed by the atmosphere," Marrone said. "Only when they're at high altitude can they get a clear view of the far-infrared part of the spectrum. Typically, they look at emission from molecules, dust or gas in space."

The high bay facility must be sufficiently large to accommodate these platforms during their development and testing phase.

"You need to be able to test their functionality without having to blow up a balloon or launching them on a rocket," Jannuzi said. " And that means having a big space with a crane where the team can suspend the payload, walk around it and work on it while it's suspended from the ground."

Some balloon-borne payloads are large and heavy enough to require balloons that rival Arizona Stadium in size, according to Steward Observatory Research Manager Brian Duffy. He explained that a typical Long Duration Balloon flown over Antarctica contains up to 40 million cubic feet of helium and can lift a payload of 6,000 pounds. Floating at a cruising altitude between 120,000 and 125,000 feet, the balloon expands to about 400 feet.

"The MIL is based on the design of NASA's Long Duration Balloon hangars in Antarctica," Duffy said. "It is specifically designed to facilitate and support the initial integration and testing of LDB payloads prior to test flight and shipment to Antarctica."  

High bay for hire

The new facility will include a thermal vacuum chamber, where engineers can expose small flight hardware or components of larger payloads to the harsh environments they will encounter after launch, such as extreme heat or cold and little or no atmospheric pressure. The facility will complement a thermal vacuum chamber in the Applied Research Building, currently under construction on the UArizona campus.

Even instruments for ground-based telescopes could be tested in the high bay, Jannuzi explained.

"Some of the testing will require pointing a telescope at a planet or a bright star," he said. "What's nice about the space is that it's not only big, but it's also easy to open it up and get your instrument on the sky right then and there."

"The Mission Integration Lab expands the University of Arizona’s capacity for space-based research requiring high bay facilities," said Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell, UArizona senior vice president for research and innovation. "Not only will this facility enable the university to remain at the forefront of Research I institutions for astronomy, it will also open opportunities to partner with key space-related industries and drive economic development in southern Arizona."

Available for government-funded research and private industry projects, the high bay complements other research and development facilities across campus to provide a one-stop ecosystem for space and low-orbit application research, Jannuzi said.

Located at the UA Tech Park at The Bridges, with close proximity to main campus as well as a planned connection to the university's CatTran shuttle network, the facility will provide access to an exceptional infrastructure of technology, research and development, he added. Jannuzi emphasized UArizona's unparalleled diversity of capability in terms of testing, assembly, refurbishment and workforce education.

"We have more research coming our way than we can house at the moment," he said, "and so we are responding by building more facilities like this one, which enables us to take on more cutting-edge science and technology."

Want to see a moon rock? There's one in downtown Tucson A lunar rock, collected during the 1971 Apollo 15 mission, is on loan until mid-August to the UArizona Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum. Having the rock, museum staff say, provides visitors with a unique opportunity to see an "unadulterated" moon rock – the largest one NASA loans out to museums. Kyle Mittan May 25, 2022 University Communications


moon rock
The rock can be found in the museum's Mineral Evolution Gallery, the first gallery that guests enter as they leave the lobby. Kyle Mittan/University Communications
Science and Technology Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum Research, Innovation & Impact

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Kyle Mittan

News Writer, University Communications

It took six days in space – and more than 18 hours of exploration on the moon's surface – for NASA astronauts David Scott and James Irwin to collect the 170 pounds of lunar rocks they brought back to Earth as part of NASA's Apollo 15 mission in 1971.

Anyone in the Tucson area this summer is probably no more than a half-hour car ride from a quarter-pound chunk of that haul.

A moon rock is on display through mid-August at the University of Arizona Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum, thanks to a six-month loan from NASA. It arrived at the museum in early February, as the museum geared up for a grand opening in its new space at the Pima County Historic Courthouse during the annual Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase.

Weighing 4 ounces and measuring about 3 inches long, the rock is the largest sample that NASA loans to museums from its collection at Johnson Space Center in Houston, said Elizabeth Gass, exhibit specialist at the Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum.

The rock can be found in the museum's Mineral Evolution Gallery, the first gallery that guests enter as they leave the lobby.

"It's a privilege to have this rock here," Gass said. "Not every museum qualifies to have one because of the strict security protocols needed to keep the rock safe."

Mark Kelly, a U.S. senator from Arizona and retired astronaut, was instrumental in helping the museum get the rock, Gass said. During a visit to the museum before its grand opening, Kelly noticed the museum did not have a moon rock and mentioned it to museum staff.

Later, before the museum had even filed an application for a moon rock loan, a NASA official called to ask whether the museum was interested.

Kelly, apparently, had reached out to his colleagues at NASA and "had made a good enough case that they called us," Gass said with a chuckle. He also helped expedite the application process, she added.

NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, during a visit to the UArizona campus earlier this month, expressed gratitude to Kelly for his help in getting the rock to the museum.

"I think NASA can afford to give away a slice of that rock. Because we're going back to get more," Melroy said, referring to the upcoming Artemis missions, which aim to land the first woman and first person of color on the moon.

Apollo 15 was the first of NASA's Apollo "J" missions, which provided astronauts more time to explore the lunar surface than previous Apollo trips. Scott, the mission's commander, and Irwin, the pilot of the lunar module, made the trip to the moon's surface; Alfred Worden, the mission's third astronaut, piloted the command module and remained inside the module as it orbited the moon.

The lunar module touched down in the plains near Hadley Rille, a valley on the moon. The area looks like the foothills at the base of many mountain ranges on Earth, Gass said.

Scott and Irwin spent roughly three days exploring the area. The mission marked the first time humans drove a car on the moon, with the pair logging 17.5 miles in the rover.

The rock that now sits in the museum was collected at Station 8, a site roughly 410 feet from where the lunar module landed. Station 8 is also where the astronauts set up the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package, or ALSEP, which NASA used until 1977 to collect data on the lunar surface.

The rock is a piece of mare basalt, a volcanic mineral found on the flat lowlands of the moon, said Gass, who is also a geologist. Those lowlands, she added, can be seen in images of the moon taken from Earth; they appear as darker, shaded areas, contrasted against the brighter areas, which are mountains. According to NASA, lunar basalts can be as old as 3.3 billion years – older than 98% of minerals found on Earth.

The rock is at least the second moon stone that can be found in Tucson. The Pima Air & Space Museum also has a rock, on permanent loan from NASA, on display.

The Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum stands out from other mineralogy museums as a destination to see both gems and minerals; minerals are inorganic solids that occur naturally in Earth's crust, while gems are minerals that have been combined with something else for aesthetics.

Although the moon rock is grounded in scientific discovery, there's plenty to admire about it for those who just want to look at something pretty, Gass said.

"Seeing an unaltered, unadulterated moon rock is really special," Gass said.

The Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum is located at the Pima County Historic Courthouse, 115 N. Church Ave. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the last tickets sold at 3. More information is available on the museum website. 

Planetary defense exercise uses Apophis as hazardous asteroid stand-in Over 100 participants from 18 countries – including UArizona scientists and NASA's UArizona-led NEOWISE mission – took part in the international exercise. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and University Communications Today

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The path of asteroid Apophis
This image shows the distance between the Apophis asteroid and Earth at the time of the asteroid's closest approach. The blue dots are the many human-made satellites that orbit our planet, and the pink represents the International Space Station. NASA/JPL-Caltech
Science and Technology College of Science Experts Exploration Lunar and Planetary Laboratory Space TRIF

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Mikayla Mace Kelley

Science Writer, University Communications

Researcher contact(s)

Vishnu Reddy

Lunar and Planetary Laboratory

Amy Mainzer

Lunar and Planetary Laboratory

Watching the skies for large asteroids that could pose a hazard to the Earth is a global endeavor. So, to test their operational readiness, the international planetary defense community will sometimes use a real asteroid's close approach as a mock encounter with a "new" potentially hazardous asteroid. The lessons learned could limit, or even prevent, global devastation should the scenario play out for real in the future.

To that end, more than 100 astronomers from around the world, including scientists at the University of Arizona, participated in an exercise last year in which a large, known, and potentially hazardous asteroid was essentially removed from the planetary defense-monitoring database to see whether it could be properly detected anew. Not only was the object "discovered" during the exercise, its chances of hitting Earth were continually reassessed as it was tracked, and the possibility of impact was ruled out.

Coordinated by the International Asteroid Warning Network and NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office, the exercise confirmed that, from initial detection to follow-up characterization, the international planetary defense community can act swiftly to identify and assess the hazard posed by a new near-Earth asteroid discovery. The results of the exercise are detailed in a study published Tuesday in the Planetary Science Journal.

The exercise focused on the real asteroid Apophis. For a short while after its discovery in 2004, Apophis was assessed to have a significant chance of impacting Earth in 2029 or later. But based on tracking measurements taken during several close approaches since the asteroid’s discovery, astronomers have refined Apophis' orbit and now know that it poses no impact hazard whatsoever for 100 years or more. Scientific observations of Apophis' most recent close approach, which occurred between December 2020 and March 2021, were used by the planetary defense community for this exercise.

"This real-world scientific input stress-tested the entire planetary defense response chain, from initial detection to orbit determination to measuring the asteroid's physical characteristics, and even determining if, and where, it might hit Earth," said Vishnu Reddy, associate professor in the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, who led the campaign.

Tracking a 'new' target

Astronomers knew Apophis would approach Earth in early December 2020. But to make the exercise more realistic, the Minor Planet Center – the internationally recognized clearinghouse for the position measurements of small celestial bodies – pretended that it was an unknown asteroid by preventing the new observations of Apophis from being connected with previous observations of it. When the asteroid approached, astronomical surveys had no prior record of Apophis.

On Dec. 4, 2020, as the asteroid started to brighten, the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey, based at UArizona, made the first detection and reported the object's astrometry – its position in the sky – to the Minor Planet Center. Because there was no prior record of Apophis for the purpose of this exercise, the asteroid was logged as a brand-new detection. Other detections followed from the Hawaii-based, NASA-funded Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System and Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System.

As Apophis drifted into the field of view of NASA's UArizona-led Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or NEOWISE, mission, the Minor Planet Center linked its observations with those made by ground-based survey telescopes to show the asteroid's motion through the sky. On Dec. 23, the Minor Planet Center announced the discovery of a "new" near-Earth asteroid. Exercise participants quickly gathered additional measurements to assess its orbit and whether it could impact Earth.

"Even though we knew that, in reality, Apophis was not impacting Earth in 2029, starting from square one – with only a few days of astrometric data from survey telescopes – there were large uncertainties in the object's orbit that theoretically allowed an impact that year," said Davide Farnocchia, a navigation engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, who led the orbital determination calculations for JPL's Center for Near Earth Object Studies.

During the asteroid's March 2021 close approach, JPL astronomers used NASA's 230-foot Goldstone Solar System Radar in California to image and precisely measure the asteroid's velocity and distance. These observations, combined with measurements from other observatories, allowed astronomers to refine Apophis' orbit and rule out a 2029 impact for the purpose of the exercise. Beyond the exercise, they also were able to rule out any chance of impact for 100 years or more.

NEOWISE homes in

Orbiting far above Earth's atmosphere, NEOWISE provided infrared observations of Apophis that would be not possible from the ground because moisture in the Earth's atmosphere absorbs light at these wavelengths.

"The independent infrared data collected from space greatly benefited the results from this exercise," said Akash Satpathy, a UArizona graduate student who led a second paper with NEOWISE Principal Investigator Amy Mainzer, a UArizona professor of planetary sciences, describing the results with inclusion of their data in the exercise. "NEOWISE was able to confirm Apophis' rediscovery while also rapidly gathering valuable information that could be used in planetary defense assessments, such as its size, shape and even clues as to its composition and surface properties."

By better understanding the asteroid's size, participating scientists at NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, could also estimate the impact energy that an asteroid like Apophis would deliver. And the participants simulated a swath of realistic impact locations on Earth's surface that, in a real situation, would help disaster agencies with possible evacuation efforts.

"Seeing the planetary defense community come together during the latest close approach of Apophis was impressive," said Michael Kelley, a program scientist with the Planetary Defense Coordination Office in NASA's Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., who provided guidance to the exercise participants. "Even during a pandemic, when many of the exercise participants were forced to work remotely, we were able to detect, track and learn more about a potential hazard with great efficiency. The exercise was a resounding success."

Additional key planetary defense exercise working group leads included Jessie Dotson at NASA Ames; Nicholas Erasmus at the South African Astronomical Observatory; David Polishook at the Weizmann Institute in Israel; Joseph Masiero at Caltech-IPAC in Pasadena, California; and Lance Benner at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, or JPL, a division of Caltech.

NEOWISE's successor, the next-generation NEO Surveyor, also led by Mainzer, is scheduled to launch no earlier than 2026 and will greatly expand the knowledge NEOWISE has amassed about the near-Earth asteroids that populate our solar system.

More information about the Center for Near Earth Object, asteroids and near-Earth objects can be found on the JPL website. For asteroid and comet news and updates, follow @AsteroidWatch on Twitter.