Science & Discovery 

We explore the dark sky

With access to more world-class telescopes than at nearly any other institution, astronomy and planetary science graduate students at NAU observe celestial objects, study the origins of our solar system, and participate in NASA missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond—searching for life on other planets.

PhD student recruiting volunteers in effort to quadruple number of known active asteroids

Examine images to find comet-like tails... on asteroids! These strange objects hold clues about water on Earth, in the solar system, and beyond.

The study of active asteroids is a relatively new field of solar system science, focusing on objects that have asteroid-like orbits but look more like comets, with visual characteristics such as tails. Students like aspiring planetary scientist Colin Chandler are leading the way in the search for more of these enigmatic objects.

Chandler, a graduate student in NAU’s Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science, recently launched a project to engage thousands of volunteers to look for active asteroids, with the goal of yielding a larger sample for study. The implications of finding more active asteroids for science and engineering are far-reaching, including helping to answer unsolved questions about how much water was delivered to Earth after it formed and where that water originated.

“With the generous help of ‘Citizen Scientists,’ we hope to quadruple the number of known active asteroids and encourage the study of an ambiguous population of solar system objects,” Chandler said.

Planetary science intern leads study of Martian crust

Planetary science intern, Ahmed AlHantoobi, working with Associate Professor Christopher Edwards and postdoctoral scholar Jennifer Buz.

Ahmed AlHantoobi, an intern working with Associate Professor Christopher Edwards and postdoctoral scholar Jennifer Buz in NAU’s Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science, led a study looking for answers to explain some puzzling magnetic anomalies on the surface of Mars.

The team explored the relationships between the strength of the magnetic field on the surface and the composition of the crust in the Terra Sirenum-Terra Cimmeria region of Mars, publishing their findings in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

“The impact of this study is quite high,” said Edwards, “as it provides some of the first answers to details related to the magnetism of the Martian crust.”

“My research with Jennifer and Christopher was an eye-opening experience, and I believe it has impacted what I want to be in the future. I got to experience first-hand the beauty of discovering and answering the unknown,” AlHantoobi said.

Doctoral candidate finds evidence of solar-driven change on the Moon

Doctoral candidate, Christian J. Tai Udovicic

Tiny iron nanoparticles, unlike any found naturally on Earth, are nearly everywhere on the Moon—and scientists are trying to understand why. A new study led by NAU doctoral candidate Christian J. Tai Udovicic uncovered important clues to help understand the surprisingly active lunar surface.

In an article recently published in Geophysical Research Letters, Tai Udovicic and his mentor, Associate Professor Christopher Edwards, found that solar radiation could be a more important source of lunar iron nanoparticles than previously thought.

As NASA prepares to land the first woman and the next man on the surface of the Moon by 2024, understanding the solar radiation environment and possible resources on the Moon is critical, and Tai Udovicic’s research contributes to that body of knowledge.

“When I saw the Apollo sample data and our satellite data side by side, I was shocked. This study shows that the solar radiation could have a much larger influence on active change on the Moon than previously thought, not only darkening its surface, but it might also create small quantities of water usable in future missions,” Tai Udovicic said.

New project prepares students from minority communities to participate in groundbreaking survey of space

Astronomist looking on data on computer.

Leaders in the field of astronomy are looking for ways to ensure that students from marginalized populations have ample opportunities to participate in research and contribute to the advancement of science. NAU Professor David Trilling, prominent astronomer and Chair of the Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science, is one of the leaders of a major new project funded through a $900,000 grant from the Heising-Simons Foundation designed to do just that.

The project’s goal is to increase the readiness of astronomy researchers from minority communities for an upcoming launch of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory on the Cerro Pachón ridge in north-central Chile. This revolutionary facility will open up new opportunities to study a wide variety of astrophysical phenomena. 

“NAU is unusual in that we are both a Hispanic-Serving Institution and a research institution where significant astronomy research related to this project is already taking place, so it is a great opportunity for us to participate,” Trilling said.