January 2021 - Letter from the Directors
Visitors from Outer Space
As we all continue to huddle in our coronavirus isolation bubbles, we are pleased to announce the arrival of a couple of visitors, not just from foreign countries but from outer regions in the Solar System. The first of these landed in the deserts of Australia on December 6. On that day, the sample chamber from the Japanese Hayabusa2 mission parachuted to Earth to bring back samples from the Ryugu asteroid.
This mission was a truly remarkable achievement in space exploration. Not only did the capsule bring back the biggest extraterrestrial sample ever returned (other than from the Moon), it also brought back two different samples. One sample was collected from the surface while another was collected from beneath the surface after the spacecraft shot a projectile at Ryugu to make a mini-crater. Besides successfully sampling the asteroid, the Hayabusa2 spacecraft landed four separate rovers on the asteroid’s surface and conducted a number of measurements from orbit.
After dropping off the sample container on its way past Earth, the main spacecraft embarked on a new mission to rendezvous with the 1998 KY26 asteroid in 2031. Several members of EPL will eventually receive samples from Ryugu for analysis—with EPL Staff Scientist Larry Nittler being only one of nine U.S. scientists selected to be a “participating scientist” in the mission.
Thankfully, the second visitor chose not to visit Earth, but instead flew by. In his continuing project to detect large planetesimals or planets in the outer Solar System, staff scientist Scott Sheppard spends a good deal of time looking through the largest telescopes to spot slowly moving objects in the sky. On one of his images, Scott found a moving object, but instead of a large, distant object, he spotted a very small, relatively close object.
The object turned out to be a near-Earth asteroid, now named 2020 YE5, in an orbit that would pass by Earth at a distance not much further than the Moon. The small size—tens of meters—kept this object from being spotted by the previous surveys that have mapped the location of most of the larger of the near-Earth asteroids. The newly discovered asteroid passed closest to Earth on January 22, but will return for another Earth flyby in 2095.
The Volcano Connection
In their work trying to understand the driving forces of volcanism in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, a team—including EPL’s Diana Roman, Lara Wagner, Helene Le Mevel, with current postdoc Daniel Portner and former postdoc Helen Janiszewski—discovered that six closely spaced volcanoes might be the current surface manifestation of a single, much larger and older volcano, most of which is hidden below sea level.
A puzzling aspect of many volcanoes is that the movement of magma in the upper tens of kilometers of Earth has been reasonably well documented, yet these volcanoes are almost certainly being fed their molten rock, magma, from much deeper reservoirs. Roman and colleagues are examining whether these six volcanoes are in fact connected to a single large magma supply in the deeper crust.
The eruptive volumes of any one of the six volcanoes would typically be in the range of a few tenths of a cubic kilometer—similar to the eruptive volume of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. If these volcanoes are connected to what is known as a caldera, the quantities of erupted material could have been much larger. For example, the explosively erupted ash from Okmok Volcano, a nearby caldera that erupted in 43 BCE, is thought to have affected weather systems globally.
For our regular readers, you know how much we like to brag about the achievements of our staff and alumni. We will do some more here.
Staff scientist Tim Strobel was just awarded a large grant from the Department of Energy to explore the synthesis of a variety of new forms of clathrate. A clathrate is, in essence, a molecular “cage” that can trap other atoms inside the cage. Depending on what atom is placed inside the cage, the material can have dramatically different physical properties. For example, clathrates could allow us to create light-weight, strong, hard, and electronically tunable materials.
Just last year, Strobel and his team announced the synthesis of a new carbon-boron clathrate. When strontium was placed inside the cage, the material behaved like a metal, capable of conducting electrical currents and with the potential for superconductivity at much higher temperature than existing superconducting materials—which normally only work in near absolute zero environments.
On top of that, we congratulate two of our alumni recently acknowledged for their talents. Former Geophysical Laboratory postdoc Xiao-Ming Liu was announced as the winner of the 2021 Early Career Award of the Mineralogy, Geochemistry, Petrology and Volcanology Division of the Geological Society of America. While at Carnegie, Xiao-Ming examined the chemical composition of sediments to track the rise of atmospheric oxygen. Additionally, Samantha Howell, a summer intern at EPL in 2019, has been accepted into the Ph.D. program at Duke University in civil and environmental engineering. Howell joins a number of students who were inspired to pursue careers in STEM after their EPL summer internship.
If you are an undergraduate student or high-school senior interested in a summer experience pursuing science at EPL, please stay tuned! We plan to open applications for our 2021 summer internship program in February.
Rick Carlson and Mike Walter
Director and Deputy Director
Earth and Planets Laboratory