REU 2016 Mentors

Michael Busch

Michael Busch studies near-Earth asteroids, a population of objects on orbits around the Sun that cross or come near that of the Earth. The near-Earth asteroids are important because they provide insights into processes active throughout the history of the solar system, because they are accessible targets for current and future space missions, and because some of them have the potential to hit Earth in the future.

Radar imaging with the Arecibo and Goldstone planetary radar facilities allows us to resolve near-Earth asteroids and precisely measure their trajectories, shapes, and spin states. Analyzing radar imaging data is time-consuming, and there is a large backlog of interesting objects to be studied.

Your project would be to study archival radar and optical data for a single near-Earth asteroid and to produce a detailed model of its shape, spin state, and trajectory. This would then be combined with other observations from the International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center to produce the best possible predictions of the asteroid's future motion.

In addition, there will be opportunities to sit in on radar observations of newly-discovered asteroids as they happen.

Qualifications: This project is suited to anyone with interests in small solar system bodies, radio or radar astronomy, and/or data analysis techniques. A basic working knowledge of Linux/Unix-based command-line computer user interfaces is strongly recommended.


Joseph Catanzarite

Joseph Catanzarite is a Data Scientist who studies detection characteristics of the Kepler Mission pipeline, application of machine learning techniques for planet detection, and occurrence rates of planetary populations.  A key aspect of the Kepler Mission's legacy will be to provide data products which can be used to determine planet occurrence rates. One of these data products is the detection efficiency curve, which tells us the probability that Kepler could detect a transiting planet as a function of the signal-to-noise ratio of the transit for a typical target star. Our project is to use synthetic transit signals injected into the Kepler data to investigate how detection efficiency depends on stellar properties such as stellar effective temperature, variability, or sky position, and planetary properties such as radius and orbital period.

This would be an excellent project for a rising junior or senior level astronomy, physics, or engineering student.

Potential areas of learning include:

  • Understanding the detection of exoplanets by the transit method
  • Computing planetary occurrence rates
  • Data science: how to handle, process, and learn from large data sets.

The student should be at the junior or senior level and have experience and proficiency in programming; familiarity with MATLAB is a plus, but is not necessary.  This project will be located at NASA Ames.


Alfonso Davila

Alfonso Davila is an astrobiologist who studies life and habitability in extremely cold and dry environments that are considered analogous to the surface of Mars. These analog environments inform us of the types of life forms that might exist, or have existed, on the surface of Mars and their survival strategies, as well as the type of biosignatures that might be found on the planet.

One of the most common adaptations to survival in extremely dry environments is the colonization of rocks. These so-called lithobiontic communities can be found inside (aka endolithic) or underneath (aka hypolithic) translucent substrates such as sandstone, quartz, or salts. The rock habitat offers a series of survival advantages to the microorganisms, such as prolonged exposure to liquid water, shelter, and protection against harmful radiation. Remarkably, the environmental conditions that organisms experience in these lithic habitats, known as the nano-climate, can be very different from the exterior.

Your project would be to study the nano-climate through the use of numerical models and to build a predictive model that can help us understand the environmental conditions that microorganisms experience inside lithic habitats both on Earth and on Mars. This can then be combined with climate models of Mars to help constrain the time when such lithic habitats could have been habitable.

Qualifications: This project is suited to students with a physics background or strong mathematical skills. The project is computational in nature and working knowledge of Fortran, Python, or IDL is desired.  This project will be located at NASA Ames.


Friedemann Freund

Friedemann Freund studies processes in the solid state, inside minerals and rocks, that are of central interest for understanding a wide range of signals that the Earth produces prior to major earthquakes. These signals derive from the stress-activation of highly mobile electronic charge carriers in rocks, positive holes, which have the remarkable ability to flow out of the stressed rock volume and travel through the Earth’s crust over distances on the order of tens of kilometers. As the positive holes propagate, they lead to a multitude of signals, which can provide insight into the waxing and waning of tectonic stresses deep below. When the positive holes arrive at the Earth’s surface, they produce diagnostically distinct signals such as the emission of infrared photons, infrared light in excess of blackbody radiation, which can be recorded by infrared imagers on Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites and on weather satellite on Geostationary (GEO) orbits. The positive holes also lead to field-ionization of air molecules and to the massive generation of airborne positive ions, which rise through the atmospheric column and cause ionospheric perturbations. One of two projects can be selected by the student.

Project 1: Tectonic Activity on Mars Revealed by Infrared Emission to be Monitored from Space

Recent observations of Mars suggest that our planetary neighbor may still exhibit residual tectonic activity – enough to cause rocks on some steep slopes of gullies to occasionally slump, producing landslides or rock avalanches. If these surface processes are triggered by subsurface stresses, possibly deep within the martian crust, it should be possible to record from orbit the characteristic signature of stress-induced infrared emission. To lay the groundwork for such a mission concept it is planned to measure – in the laboratory – the infrared emission from the surface of relatively large rock samples, the far ends of which will be stressed to activate positive hole charge carriers. The experiments will be conducted both at ambient temperature and at about 200K using dry ice to cool the rocks to temperatures representative of martian surface conditions.

Qualifications: This project is suited for a physics, electrical engineering or geoscience/planetary sciences student who should be familiar with infrared spectroscopy and general laboratory procedures. Facilities at Ames Research Center will be used for this project.

Project 2: Softening of Rocks during Stress-Activation of Positive Hole Charge Carriers

This project is about electronic charge carriers, positive holes, which are defect electrons in the oxygen anion sublattice of silicate minerals. Normally electrically inactive, positive holes exist as self-trapped hole pairs in form of peroxy links such as O3Si-OO-SiO3 between SiO4 tetrahedra. When peroxy bonds break up, positive holes are activated. Associated with energy states at the upper edge of the valence band, these charge carriers have the remarkable ability to flow out of the stressed rock volume into the surrounding unstressed rocks, changing the rocks from being insulators to being p-type semiconductors. The wavefunctions associated with positive hole states are highly delocalized, meaning that their electron deficiency is shared with many oxygen anion neighbors. This reduces the electron density of the affected oxygen anions and decreases their Coulomb interaction with cation neighbors. This in turn affects the bond strength and, hence, all physical parameters including the mechanical strength. This STAR project is dedicated to measuring the flexure module of a rock sample and to measure the changes of the flexure module when positive hole charge carriers become activated.

Qualifications: This project is suited for a physics, electrical engineering or geoscience/planetary sciences student interested in carrying out delicate laboratory experiments. Facilities at Ames Research Center will be used for this project.


Uma Gorti

Uma Gorti is an astrophysicist mainly interested in star and planet formation. She is currently working on understanding how planet-forming disks evolve, and is developing models that one day will be compared with future observations to be taken by the SOFIA, JWST, ALMA and other telescopes. Such studies will help us understand the conditions under which planets form and the likelihood of planet formation, and hence life, in different star-forming environments.

The intern will focus on applying theoretical models to interpret observed spectra of protoplanetary disks obtained from infrared telescopes (e.g., Spitzer, Herschel) and sub-millimeter observatories (e.g., ALMA). The project will consist of compiling available data for a few selected disks with signs of ongoing planet formation, and then, using existing thermochemical models, to infer the disk conditions that reproduce the observed emission. Simulated images will be compared with observational data, and wind/outflow signatures will be modeled. Chemical networks will be updated, and the student will test these networks to make predictions for future observations as well.

Qualifications: Physics and math majors are preferred. The project is computational in nature and working knowledge of Fortran, Python, or IDL is desired.  This project will be located at the SETI Institute.


Viginia Guilick

Virginia Gulick is a planetary geologist with multiple interests. As a member of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera team, she studies geomorphic and hydrologic processes on Mars and compares them to analogs on Earth. She is also interested in instrument and software development aimed at helping to improve the science return of future planetary missions and terrestrial research. She also leads a software development effort that facilitates greater involvement of the public in the scientific discovery process.

1) Fluvial and hydrothermal studies using HiRISE images and Digital Elevation Maps, combined with CTX, HRSC, or other data sets. These studies are focused mostly on the formation of gullies and other fluvial landforms on Mars. Terrestrial analog sites, hydrologic, or landform models will be used to illuminate the importance of various processes as well as understanding the implications for paleoclimatic change. Opportunities are also available for HiRISE science operations support, including help with science planning and targeting, and analysis of acquired data. Geology background especially in geomorphology and hydrology is desired. Experience working with ENVI, Matlab, ISIS and Python is helpful.

2) Developing science analysis algorithms for future planetary missions. We use innovative laboratory techniques to study about a thousand rock and mineral samples. We test Ramen spectrometers to identify instrument and automated computer mineral identification algorithms that might be used on future Mars rover missions. Student would work to acquire new images of our samples using a better imaging system and new Raman spectra of our samples. A well-qualified student could also work to improve our automated mineral identification algorithms. Student with experience in computer programming (C++), MATLAB, or rock sample analysis preferred.

3) Developing a new collaborative science crowdsourcing website. This project aims to go beyond our original crowdsourcing websites Mars Clickworkers (developed in 2000) and HiRISE Clickworkers site (2007-2010) to a new level of collaborative science.

Students required to do web design and web tools development in JAVA or PHP. Some geology background is also helpful.

These projects are located at NASA Ames.


Gerry Harp

Gerald Harp is working on projects to support the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and studies of the interstellar medium using radio astronomy imaging and power signal processing computers. The Allen Telescope Array (ATA) is a unique radio telescope in Northern California, simultaneously performing both SETI searches and make radio astronomy observations. The intern will work with ATA and its data products, and will be responsible for novel observations and analysis of the results. These results contribute to new research going on at the SETI Institute, including everything from array calibration to optimize ATA sensitivity to applications of new techniques for discovering alien signals using ultra-fast numerical processing.

The student will join a team of committed and energetic scientists and engineers to gather and analyze astronomical observations in the search of extraterrestrial intelligence and conventional astrophysics. This project focuses on analysis of radio interferometer data from the ATA. Use, test, and help to modify several computer programs for analysis of correlator or "imaging" data (but not necessarily images). Daily observations are performed with ATA imagers and the student will search for anomalous bursts and other time-dependent features in the data. Objects of interest are then imaged to see if such objects are localized to a single position on the sky, as would be the case for real extraterrestrial events.

The student should be comfortable working with computers and have interest in applications of computing for analysis of large astronomical datasets. Familiarity with Linux operating system and command-line scripting is beneficial but not required. Suitable for a student who is interested in astronomy, SETI, radio telescopes, and software engineering. This project is hosted at the SETI Institute.


Franck Marchis and Eric Nielsen

marchis nielsonFranck Marchis studies the solar system using mainly ground-based telescopes equipped with adaptive optics (AO). More recently he has been also involved in the definition of a new generation of AOs for 8 -10 m class telescopes and future Extremely Large Telescopes. He has developed algorithms to process and enhance the quality of images, both astronomical and biological, using fluorescence microscopy. He is currently involved in the development of the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), an extreme AO system for the Gemini South telescope, which is capable of imaging and recording spectra of exoplanets orbiting around nearby stars. The detection and study of exoplanets, or planets around other stars, is one of the hottest area of research in modern astronomy.

The unique GPI instrument was specifically built to hunt for Jupiter-like planets around nearby stars, and had its successful first light in November 2013. A large consortium of 60 researchers located across North and South America developed the instrument and its complex observing and data processing pipeline, and has recently initiated an observing campaign called the GPI Exoplanet Survey to search for Jupiter-like exoplanets around 650 nearby and young stars, and expand the number of imaged planets from a handful to several dozen. The student will join the consortium by working with Franck Marchis and Eric Nielsen (postdoctoral fellow at SETI Institute and Stanford University) on the analysis of new data, including calibration data to understand the limit and performance of the instruments and scientific observations to optimize the search for planets around other stars.

The student should have a moderate to high level of computer experience. Meticulous attention to detail is necessary, as are solid math skills through at least trigonometry. Some programming experience (particularly using IDL and Python) and familiarity or coursework in astronomy (particularly the solar system, telescopes, and the electromagnetic spectrum) would be beneficial. This project is suitable for a student interested in astronomy, planetary science, ground-based telescope observations, and data processing and analysis. S/He will be located at the SETI Institute.


Susan E. Mullally and Fergal Mullally

Susan Mullally and Fergal Mullally are astronomers working for the K2 and Kepler missions to detect candidate exoplanets using the transit method.  As a follow-up to the Kepler mission, the K2 mission is surveying a series of ecliptic plane fields for 3 months each, opening up the possibility of finding short period exoplanets in the ecliptic.  Susan and Fergal are a part of a small team of astronomers at NASA Ames who are developing a pipeline to detect planets in K2 data. The pipeline will extract light curves from raw data, find planet signals, then identify and reject false signals found in the data.  Students working on this project will compare the performance of various algorithms used to improve our ability to find exoplanets while rejecting false positive signals. The student will learn about detecting transiting exoplanets, techniques to work with time series data, and about astrophysical and instrumental signals that can mimic a transiting planet. 

Students need to be comfortable with computers; specifically they should have experience with Unix/Linux and be proficient with Python. At a minimum, the student should be able to produce plots in Python with, for example, numpy and matplotlib. Some experience with statistics will be helpful. Although an interest in stars and planets is important, students of all majors with sufficient technical skills will be welcome to participate in this project.  This project will be located at NASA Ames.


Peter Tenenbaum and Douglas Caldwell

Tenenbaum CaldwellPeter Tenenbaum is a physicist/data scientist working on the development of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) data analysis pipeline. He developed a detailed TESS science data simulator and is leading the effort to develop the calibration and transit signal detection pipeline software, leveraging his years of experience working on Kepler data analysis to ensure that the pipeline is ready for the 2017 launch of TESS. Douglas Caldwell is an astronomer who studies the detection and characterization of exoplanets. He serves as the Kepler Instrument Scientist and is supporting the development of the TESS data analysis pipeline.

NASA’s TESS mission will be the first-ever spaceborne all-sky transit survey. TESS will identify planets ranging from Earth-size to gas giants, orbiting a wide range of stellar types and orbital distances. Its principal goal is to detect small planets with bright host stars in the solar neighborhood. Such systems are best suited for detailed characterizations of the planets and their atmospheres by the James Webb Space Telescope and major ground-based telescopes. The goal of this project is to conduct a series of sensitivity studies to understand how the details of the TESS instrument and observation sequence will affect the ability analyze the science data and to detect planets. Two examples are 1) understand the effects of star-color dependence introduced by structure in TESS detectors, and 2) optimize the number and distribution of fiducial stars used in the pipeline to measure and track spacecraft pointing and photometric performance — understanding the tradeoff between brightness and crowding, and how it varies from crowded to sparse star fields. The student will configure and run the TESS science data simulator for a range of conditions and then analyze and write-up the results. The student will learn details of the TESS instrument and science analysis, as well as gain practical data analysis experience while participating in the development of a NASA mission.

This project is ideal for someone who is interested in exoplanets and scientific data analysis and who wants to work on the development of NASA’s next planet-finding mission. The student should have a background in scientific computing and/or data analysis and computer programming experience. Experience using MATLAB is ideal.  The project is at SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center.


Matthew Tiscareno

Matthew Tiscareno is a planetary scientist who studies motion in the solar system, especially the constantly-moving rings of Saturn. The goal of this project is to understand the morphology and particle properties of Saturn's rings, including waves that propagate through the rings, the detailed structure of scalloped gap edges, and embedded moons that migrate within the rings (analogous to planetsimals in protoplanetary disks). The bulk of the work will involve processing images from the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, to characterize features within the images and to determine the geometry and position of such features. As time allows, follow-up work will involve describing and understanding the features identified in the first part of the work.

Since this project involves use of image-processing software, we seek individuals who are comfortable with computers. Prior training is not, however, required. The project requires two semesters of general physics and a general familiarity with computer programming. The project is suitable for a student interested in working with images taken from a spacecraft. The work is based at the SETI Institute.