The Neutron Dance

By photosearth / November 7, 2017

Caltech geochemist John Eiler aims to reveal “the genetics of everything”

Caltech geochemist John Eiler

Caltech geochemist John Eiler
Credit: Caltech

Caltech geochemist John Eiler aims to reveal “the genetics of everything”—the history of each molecule in the natural world as written in its isotopic structure. What he finds out could have implications for ventures ranging from the study of meteorites to medical diagnosis and treatment.

Read more on the Break Through campaign website.

Caltech News tagged with “GPS”

The Grand Tour: Watson Lecture Preview

By photosearth / November 3, 2017

In the November 15 Watson Lecture, Professor of Planetary Science Heather Knutson will discuss how to characterize planets outside of our solar system.
News Writer: 
Lori Dajose

Heather Knutson

Heather Knutson
Credit: Caltech

The past decade has marked a period of great progress in our quest to discover and characterize the properties of the planets outside of our own solar system, called exoplanets. Observations of eclipsing systems—in which a planet periodically passes in front of and then behind its star as seen from Earth—have given us new insights into the nature of these alien worlds. On November 15, Professor of Planetary Science Heather Knutson will give a Watson Lecture to discuss ongoing efforts, using a combination of both ground- and space-based telescopes, to investigate the diverse properties of exoplanetary systems. This Watson Lecture begins at 8 p.m. in Beckman Auditorium and is free and open to the public.

What do you do?

I study the properties of planets orbiting nearby stars. We’re currently very good at finding these systems—the astronomy community has found over 5,000 planets and planet candidates so far—but for the vast majority of them, all we know is the size and orbital period of the planet. My group is working to answer questions like: What is the planet made of? Does it have an atmosphere and, if so, what kind? What is the weather like on the planet—is it hot, cold, cloudy, windy?

Why is this important?

There are two reasons why this is important. First, we are looking for clues that tell us about how these planetary systems formed and evolved. Many of them have architectures that look very different than our own—for instance, a large gas giant planet orbiting closer to its star than Mercury is to our sun. We’d like to understand why our solar system went down a different path. The second reason is related to life: we’d like to know whether Earth-like planets are common or rare in the universe and eventually we’d like to search for signs of life on these planets. Of course, life might not necessarily be limited to Earth-like planets, but it’s the obvious place to start!

How did you get into this line of work?

I have always loved science, and picked physics as my major when I was an undergrad at Johns Hopkins because it was interesting and also practical. However, my interests took a decidedly non-practical turn when I found my way across the street to the Space Telescope Science Institute, home of the Hubble Space Telescope, and located immediately adjacent to the Johns Hopkins campus, for a summer internship. The presence of so many professional astronomers in one spot convinced me that, yes, you could earn a living doing really cool astronomy research, and I ultimately ended up going to Harvard to earn my PhD in astronomy.

 

Named for the late Caltech professor Earnest C. Watson, who founded the series in 1922, the Watson Lectures present Caltech and JPL researchers describing their work to the public. Many past Watson Lectures are available online at Caltech’s YouTube site.

Caltech News tagged with “GPS”

Caltech Launches New Autonomous Systems Research Center

By photosearth / October 24, 2017

The Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST) will unite engineers and scientists from many disciplines to advance research on robotics, drones, driverless cars, and machine learning
News Writer: 
Robert Perkins

Ambulance

A scale model of the Autonomous Flying Ambulance being developed at CAST hovers in front of the wall of fans.
Credit: Caltech

On October 24, Caltech will officially open the new Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies (CAST), a 10,000-square-foot facility where machines and researchers will work together and learn from one another.

At CAST, researchers from Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS), Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences (GPS), and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) will collaborate to create the next generation of autonomous systems, advancing the fields of drone research, autonomous exploration, and bio-inspired systems. Researchers will continue pioneering work on technologies ranging from prosthetic legs that use machine learning to automatically adjust to a wearer’s gait to a flying, self-driven ambulance.

“The goal is to teach autonomous systems to think independently and react accordingly, preparing them for the rigors of the world outside of the lab,” says CAST Director Mory Gharib, Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Bioinspired Engineering.

The facility will be a living experiment. While engineers construct and test drones, robots within CAST itself will learn to help run the facility—all while being observed by 46 cameras that provide complete coverage of the interior, tracking each robot’s motion down to within 100 microns (about the thickness of a human hair).

The CAST team includes more than two dozen engineers and scientists. Instead of developing autonomous systems simply for the sake of advancing the technology, the work will be guided in part by scientists and other stakeholders who would benefit tremendously from autonomous systems. For example, by collaborating with seismologists and first responders, engineers could develop a swarm of flying sentinel drones that automatically activate during an earthquake, rapidly scan damaged areas, and relay information about where there are likely to be injured people in need of medical attention. “The CAST team will also work on the next generation of drones and robots to explore the solar system, including submersible vehicles designed to operate in the ice-covered oceans of Europa, a moon of Jupiter,” says CAST steering committee member Woody Fischer, Professor of Geobiology.

The facility will include an assembly room with an 85-foot-long oval track for walking robots and an aerospace robotics control lab with high-precision flat floor that allows researchers to fly “spacecraft” that have been engineered to hover through high-pressure jets (like a reverse air hockey table) and simulate the frictionless motion of space flight. But CAST’s centerpiece is a three-story-tall, wholly enclosed aerodrome—the tallest of its kind—in which to test flying drones. To simulate the ever-shifting environmental conditions that drones face in the real world, the aerodrome includes a 10-foot-by-10-foot wall of 1,296 fans capable of generating wind speeds of up to 44 mph, with a side wall of 324 fans to create a crosswind. The wall is capable of creating a nearly infinite variety of wind conditions for drones to learn to react to—everything from a light gust to a stormy vortex. It can also be tilted 90 degrees to simulate vertical take offs and landings.

“The current state-of-the-art in autonomous systems is very promising on two divergent fronts,” Gharib says. “The bodies, or machines and sensors, have become more and more sophisticated and capable. Meanwhile, the algorithms that collect and interpret behavior are increasingly fine-tuned. We plan to bring these two together through a series of ‘moonshot’ challenges that we will undertake in the coming years.”

Like their ambitious namesake that challenged Americans to send a human to the moon in the 1960s, CAST’s moonshot goals will require advances in engineering to accomplish feats not yet possible. They include building a robot (guided by a network of flying drone scouts) that can walk from Mexico to Canada without assistance and creating a drone delivery service between Caltech and JPL.

One key goal of CAST is the development of an autonomous flying ambulance for urban applications. Flying vehicles offer significant benefits over their ground-based counterparts: three-dimensional space is easier to navigate safely than two-dimensional space, and there is an advantage to rising above the gridlock that, with 60 percent of the world’s populations expected to live in cities by 2030, will only continue to get worse.

“This isn’t just as simple as creating a UAV big enough to carry a person. You need a fault-tolerant vehicle that can adapt autonomously to shifting weather conditions and navigate through skies without colliding with other UAVs. You need the best in aerospace engineering, machine learning, GPS-free navigation—and all of it scalable,” Gharib says. “It’s a huge challenge, but at CAST, we can and will build it.”

Corporations and industry members will play a key part in the development of CAST technologies and systems. With the lead sponsorship of Raytheon Company as well as the support of corporations such as AeroVironment, industry partnerships will help fund CAST and the development of the next generations of autonomous systems. Through these partnerships and collaborations, industry members will assist CAST researchers in bringing the resulting products to market faster.

This endowed center was established through the generous support of Foster and Coco Stanback. More information about the CAST facility can be found online at http://cast.caltech.edu

Caltech News tagged with “GPS”

Caltech’s Konstantin Batygin Named a Packard Fellow

By photosearth / October 18, 2017

Five-year fellowship offers early career researchers freedom to tackle major challenges
News Writer: 
Robert Perkins

Batygin

Konstantin Batygin
Credit: Caltech

Konstantin Batygin, assistant professor of planetary science and Van Nuys Page Scholar at Caltech, has been named one of the 2017 Packard Fellows in Science and Engineering. The fellowship, awarded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, provides each fellow $ 875,000 over five years to pursue their research. Batygin (MS ’10, PhD ’12) is one of 18 early career scientists and engineers to receive the award this year.

“These scientists and engineers are tackling unanswered questions and pushing the boundaries of their fields,” said Frances Arnold, chair of the Packard Fellowships Advisory Panel and former Packard Fellow, in a press release. Arnold is the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at Caltech. “Their innovations could lead to breakthroughs in how we live our lives and our understanding of nature.”

Each year, the Packard Foundation invites 50 universities to nominate two faculty members for consideration. The Packard Fellowships Advisory Panel, a group of 12 scientists and engineers, evaluates the nominations and recommends Fellows for approval by the Packard Foundation board of trustees.

Batygin’s research focuses primarily on planetary astrophysics—in particular, the formation and evolution of solar systems throughout their lifespans. He also studies exoplanets and physical processes that occur in planetary interiors and atmospheres. Many exoplanets are so close to their host stars that they are blasted with radiation, making their atmospheres electrically conductive. Batygin studies how the interaction between an exoplanet’s magnetic field and its atmosphere can induce electrical currents that heat the planet’s interior and perturb atmospheric circulation patterns.

In 2015, having already published 21 papers as a first author, Batygin made Forbes‘s “30 Under 30” list in the science category. The magazine’s editors described him as “the next physics rock star” (a nod to the fact that in his spare time, Batygin takes a turn as an actual rock star—he and his band, The Seventh Season, have recorded three studio albums and play throughout the Los Angeles area).

In 2016, Batygin and colleague Mike Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy, made global headlines with the announcement of the existence of an as-yet-unobserved ninth planet, touching off a worldwide race among astronomers to locate the planet. The discovery led Popular Science to name him one of the “Brilliant 10” researchers later that year.

Batygin is the 32nd researcher from Caltech to be named a Packard Fellow since the program’s beginning in 1988, recently including Mikhail Shapiro (2016), David Hsieh (2015), Andrew Thompson (2014), and Alexei Aravin (2012). “Caltech provides all of us with amazing resources, but this fellowship gives me the incentive to undertake a project that is truly long-term and potentially very high-risk,” he says. “I usually try to think about problems with the goal of accomplishing something within a year or two–something that generates an interesting result essentially right away. Perhaps it’s time to add big-picture, fundamental problems into the mix.”

Batygin often models the motions of celestial bodies using supercomputers; so one key thing this funding could help pay for is computer time. “This is going to lift any restrictions I had previously on computation. If a problem comes up that requires the heaviest numerical calculation, that’s something I could undertake,” he says.

For now, Batygin is not saying exactly which challenges he plans to pursue next–only that “I’ve got a list started. Looking forward, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, but I’m going to do it better.”

The full list of 2017 Packard Fellows—which also includes Caltech alumna and Northwestern University assistant professor Magdalena Osburn (PhD ’13)—can be found online

Caltech News tagged with “GPS”

New Provost Starts This Week

By photosearth / October 3, 2017

David Tirrell assumes his new role on campus

Tirrell

Caltech provost David Tirrell
Credit: Alex H. Parker

On October 1, 2017 chemistry professor and Beckman Institute director David Tirrell officially steps into his new position as Caltech’s 10th provost.

A Caltech faculty member since 1998, Tirrell, the Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, chaired the division from 1999 to 2009.

Read more about Tirrell and his new role.

Caltech News tagged with “GPS”

Caltech’s New Provost Starts This Week

By photosearth / October 2, 2017

David Tirrell assumes his new role on campus

Tirrell

Caltech provost David Tirrell
Credit: Alex H. Parker

On October 1, 2017 chemistry professor and Beckman Institute director David Tirrell officially steps into his new position as Caltech’s 10th provost.

A Caltech faculty member since 1998, Tirrell, the Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, chaired the division from 1999 to 2009.

Read more about Tirrell and his new role.

Caltech News tagged with “GPS”

Scenes from Frosh Camp

By photosearth / September 29, 2017

Each year, Paul Asimow introduces students to geology on the Frosh Camp Hike
News Writer: 
Lori Dajose

Paul Asimow, the Eleanor and John R. McMillan Professor of Geology and Geochemistry, talks to students from atop a stump during the Frosh Camp geology hike.

Paul Asimow, the Eleanor and John R. McMillan Professor of Geology and Geochemistry, talks to students from atop a stump during the Frosh Camp geology hike.
Credit: Caltech

This year, Caltech’s freshman orientation took place on September 18 and 19 in Ventura, California. Over the two days, students from the class of 2021 attended talks about the Honor Code and academics, met deans and resident associates, and participated in elective activities such as a boat design contest and a geology hike.

Paul Asimow, the Eleanor and John R. McMillan Professor of Geology and Geochemistry, has led the annual geology hike for 10 years, with increasing attendance each year. With panoramic views of the Channel Islands, the Ventura River Valley, and the Santa Clara River Valley—weather almost always permitting—the 1.5-mile trail is located in the hills above Ventura and passes through fossil-rich rocks and landforms testifying to the extremely rapid uplift of those hills and the nearly-as-rapid resulting erosion.

Learn more and view the slideshow here.

Caltech News tagged with “GPS”

Cassini’s Final Plunge

By photosearth / September 16, 2017

Crowds at JPL and Caltech watch as the Cassini spacecraft ends its 20-year mission with a dive into Saturn
News Writer: 
Robert Perkins

Saturn

With this view, Cassini captured one of its last looks at Saturn and its main rings from a distance.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

It ended with a bang and with a whisper. Closing out a chapter of the study of Saturn and its moons and rings, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft plunged into the atmosphere of Saturn on September 15, burning up as it streaked across Saturn’s sky—while back on Earth, the explosive event was observed as a telemetry feed that simply went silent.

Crowds of scientists and engineers—some of whom have been with the project since its beginning in the 1980s—gathered both at JPL and on Caltech’s campus before the break of dawn to witness the end of the mission, watching as the spacecraft sped up to over 75,000 miles per hour while its altitude above the cloud tops ticked down to 0.

“For 13 years we’ve been running a marathon of scientific discovery. And we’re on the last lap,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, in the hour leading up to the end.

At JPL, a cluster of Cassini science team members wearing purple shirts emblazoned with a team logo watched a live feed of Mission Control from the Theodore von Kármán Auditorium. Andy Ingersoll, professor of planetary science at Caltech, was among that purple-shirted family. “Cassini was a great mission,” he said. “The technicians who built it and the engineers who kept it running were all terrific. Even the scientists, with their different interests and objectives, got along. We all are lucky to be alive during this period of solar system exploration.”

As Cassini plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, its ion and neutral mass spectrometer sampled the atmosphere as the spacecraft’s small jets fought against the tugging of the atmosphere to keep its antenna pointed at Earth to beam data back in real time (albeit with an 83-minute transmission delay).

On screen in the auditorium, the signal from Cassini appeared as a spike in the middle of the X and S band radio frequencies (in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum). As some of the Cassini science team members held their breath and others cheered it on—”Give me just a few more minutes of data!” one said—the spike abruptly flat-lined; first on the X band and then on the S band. The spacecraft was declared officially silent at 4:55 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, and was estimated to have broken up completely by about a minute later.

It was a bittersweet moment to end a mission that accomplished so much, with boxes of tissues passed around amid proud smiles and handshakes.

“Cassini made amazing discoveries and inspired a whole generation of young—and old—explorers. It is a tribute to the magic that Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory brings to all of humanity,” said Charles Elachi, professor of electrical engineering and planetary science, emeritus. Elachi (MS ’69, PhD ’71) served as director of JPL from 2001 to 2016, overseeing the lion’s share of the Cassini mission, and is the team leader of the Cassini Radar Science Team.

Designed in the 1980s and ’90s, and launched in 1997, Cassini passed by Jupiter in 2000 and reached Saturn in 2004, where it has orbited ever since. During the past 13 years, the spacecraft has made many dramatic discoveries, including a global ocean within the moon Enceladus and liquid methane seas on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

“One unsung hero is Saturn itself. All parts of the Saturn system came through with surprises and discoveries that blew our minds,” said Ingersoll. “I am honored to have been part of Cassini from the start.” Ingersoll, a Cassini imaging scientist, used data from the probe to study vortices on Jupiter and the unique six-sided jet stream, known as the hexagon, around Saturn’s north pole.

As the spacecraft’s fuel supply dwindled, the decision was made to crash it into Saturn rather than let it drift through space, where it might accidentally collide with one of the planet’s icy moons. The goal was to avoid the risk of contaminating those moons with terrestrial microbes that might still be clinging to Cassini’s body.

In the months before the end, the spacecraft performed a series of 22 dives through Saturn’s rings. During the dives Cassini collected a host of valuable information that was too risky to obtain earlier in the mission. “The data we are seeing from Cassini’s Grand Finale are every bit as exciting as we hoped, although we are still deep in the process of working out what they are telling us about Saturn and its rings,” Spilker said in July.

Now that the mission has concluded, the Cassini team will teach future explorers what they have learned. “There are still data that we’ve got to keep working on. But we also have the job of passing on our experience to the next generation. We have an obligation to say, ‘Here are the mistakes we made, and here’s what we did right,'” Ingersoll said.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s JPL, a division of Caltech, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. JPL designed, developed, and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

Caltech News tagged with “GPS”

The Massively Big Picture

By photosearth / September 1, 2017

Mark Simons is part of a movement to add precise and panoramic perspectives to previously limited geographic observations.

Mark Simons

Mark Simons

The 2011 Japanese earthquake was a defining moment for Mark Simons. The devastating 9.0-magnitude quake and its subsequent tsunami, which took nearly 16,000 lives, spurred efforts around the globe that will shape how nations predict and prepare for future natural disasters and motivated new approaches to basic earthquake science that are applicable to seismic events large and small.

Read more on the Break Through campaign website.

Caltech News tagged with “earthquakes”

How Friction Evolves During an Earthquake

By photosearth / August 16, 2017

By simulating quakes in a lab, engineers study the way that friction changes along a fault during a seismic event
News Writer: 
Robert Perkins

Wind Tunnel

The “seismological wind tunnel” at Caltech. The white square block in the center is a plastic known as homalite that acts as an analogue for rock. It contains a miniature fault that is triggered via a nickel-chromium wire fuse to produce a tiny simulated earthquake.
Credit: Courtesy of Vito Rubino

By simulating earthquakes in a lab, engineers at Caltech have documented the evolution of friction during an earthquake—measuring what could once only be inferred, and shedding light on one of the biggest unknowns in earthquake modeling.

Before an earthquake, static friction helps hold the two sides of a fault immobile and pressed against each other. During the passage of an earthquake rupture, that friction becomes dynamic as the two sides of the fault grind past one another. Dynamic friction evolves throughout an earthquake, affecting how much and how fast the ground will shake and thus, most importantly, the destructiveness of the earthquake.

“Friction plays a key role in how ruptures unzip faults in the earth’s crust,” says Vito Rubino, research scientist at Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS). “Assumptions about dynamic friction affect a wide range of earthquake science predictions, including how fast ruptures will occur, the nature of ground shaking, and residual stress levels on faults. Yet the precise nature of dynamic friction remains one of the biggest unknowns in earthquake science.”

Previously, it commonly had been believed that the evolution of dynamic friction was mainly governed by how far the fault slipped at each point as a rupture went by—that is, by the relative distance one side of a fault slides past the other during dynamic sliding. Analyzing earthquakes that were simulated in a lab, the team instead found that sliding history is important but the key long-term factor is actually the slip velocity—not just how far the fault slips, but how fast.

Rubino is the lead author on a paper on the team’s findings that was published in Nature Communications on June 29. He collaborated with Caltech’s Ares Rosakis, the Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering at EAS, and Nadia Lapusta, professor of mechanical engineering and geophysics, who has joint appointments with EAS and the Caltech Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences.

The team conducted the research at a Caltech facility, directed by Rosakis, that has been unofficially dubbed the “seismological wind tunnel.” At the facility, researchers use advanced high-speed optical diagnostics and other techniques to study how earthquake ruptures occur.

“Our unique facility allows us to study dynamic friction laws by following individual, fast-moving shear ruptures and recording friction along their sliding faces in real time,” Rosakis says. “This allows us for the first time to study friction point-wise and without having to assume that sliding occurs uniformly, as is done in classical friction studies,” Rosakis adds.

To simulate an earthquake in the lab, the researchers first cut in half a transparent block of a type of plastic known as homalite, which has similar mechanical properties to rock. They then put the two pieces together under pressure, simulating the static friction that builds up along a fault line. Next, they placed a small nickel-chromium wire fuse at the location where they wanted the epicenter of the quake to be. Triggering the fuse produced a local pressure release, which reduced friction at that location, and allowed a very fast rupture to propagate up the miniature fault.

In this study, the team recorded these simulated earthquakes using a new diagnostic method that combines high-speed photography (at 2 million frames per second) with a technique called digital image correlation, in which individual frames are compared and contrasted with one another and changes between those images—indicating motion—are tracked with sub-pixel accuracy.

“Some numerical models of earthquake rupture, including the ones developed in my group at Caltech, have used friction laws with slip-velocity dependence, based on a collection of rock mechanics experiments and theories. It is gratifying to see those formulations validated by the spontaneous mini-earthquake ruptures in our study, ” Lapusta says.

In future work, the team plans to use its observations to improve the existing mathematical models about the nature of dynamic friction and to help create new ones that better represent the experimental observations; such new models would improve computer earthquake simulations.

The study is titled “Understanding dynamic friction through spontaneously evolving laboratory earthquakes.” This research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Southern California Earthquake Center.

Caltech News tagged with “GPS”

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