An end to drug errors?

August 28, 2014

MIT alumni entrepreneurs Gauti Reynisson MBA ’10 and Ívar Helgason HS ’08 spent the early 2000s working for companies that implemented medication-safety technologies — such as electronic-prescription and pill-barcoding systems — at hospitals in their native Iceland and other European countries.

But all that time spent in hospitals soon opened their eyes to a major health care issue: Surprisingly often, patients receive the wrong medications. Indeed, a 2006 report from the Institute of Medicine found that 1.5 million hospitalized patients in the United States experience medication errors every year due, in part, to drug-administration mistakes. Some cases have adverse or fatal results.

Frustrated and seeking a solution, the Icelandic duo quit their careers and traveled to MIT for inspiration. There, they teamed up with María Rúnarsdóttir MBA ’08 and devised MedEye, a bedside medication-scanning system that uses computer vision to identify pills and check them against medication records, to ensure that a patient gets the right drug and dosage.

Commercialized through startup Mint Solutions, MedEye has now been used for a year in hospitals in the Netherlands (where the startup is based), garnering significant attention from the medical community. Through this Dutch use, the co-founders have determined that roughly 10 percent of MedEye’s scans catch medication errors.

“Medication verification is a pinnacle point of medical safety,” says Helgason, a physician and product developer. “It’s a complicated chain of events that leads up to medication mistakes. But the bedside is the last possible place to stop these mistakes.”

Mint Solutions’ aim, Reynisson says, is to aid nurses in rapidly, efficiently, and correctly administering medication. “We want the device to be the nurse’s best friend,” says Reynisson, now Mint’s CEO. The device, he adds, could yield savings by averting medication mishaps, which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Currently, the startup has raised $6 million in funding, and is ramping up production and working with a Dutch health care insurance company to bring the MedEye to 15 hospitals across the country, as well as Belgium, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

Systematic approach

To use the MedEye — a foot-high box in a white housing — a nurse first scans a patient’s wristband, which has a barcode that accesses the patient’s electronic records. The nurse then pushes the assigned pills into the MedEye via a sliding tray. Inside the device, a small camera scans the pills, rapidly identifying them by size, shape, color, and markings. Algorithms distinguish the pills by matching them against a database of nearly all pills in circulation.

Although the hardware is impressive, much innovation is in MedEye’s software, which cross-references (and updates) the results in the patient’s records. Results are listed in a simple interface: Color-coded boxes show if pills have been correctly prescribed (green), or are unknown or wrong (red). If a pill isn’t in MedEye’s database — because it’s new, for instance — the system alerts the nurse, who adds the information into the software for next time.

“It does all the querying for the right medication, for the right patient, and takes care of the paperwork,” Helgason says. “We save a lot of time for nurses that way.”

Similar systems exist for catching medication errors: About 15 years ago, some hospitals began using barcode systems — which Reynisson and Helgason actually helped install in some Dutch and German hospitals. These systems also require nurses to use a handheld scanner to scan a patient’s wristband, and then the imprinted barcodes on each pill container.

“But the hurdle has been getting these installed,” Reynisson says. “Companies sell medications with barcodes, others sell software, or barcode scanners. Hospitals have to make all these things work together, and it’s hard for small and medium hospitals to afford. No one is selling turn-key  barcode systems.”

That’s where MedEye is truly unique, Helgason says: As an entire system that requires no change in a hospital’s workflow or logistics, “it’s more usable and more accessible in health care facilities.”

Feedback from nurses using MedEye to ease their workloads has been positive, Reynisson says. And errors are caught more often than expected. In fact, he recalls a memorable moment last year when a nurse at the Dutch hospital demonstrated the MedEye for department heads on a random patient. The nurse scanned four pills, which had been assigned to the patient, and added an extra, erroneous pill to show how MedEye caught errors.

“MedEye showed the extra pill was incorrect. But, to his surprise, so were two other pills that the nurse had assumed were correct, because another nurse had dispensed those,” Reynisson says. “Goes to show that even with full focus, it is common for nurses to be in a position where they are expected to catch errors made in other parts of the medication-delivery process.”

Vision for new technology

Helgason conceived of MedEye while studying in the MIT-Harvard Health Sciences and Technology program. In a computer-vision class in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, he saw that advances in 3-D object-recognition technology meant computers could learn objects based on various characteristics.

At the same time, he started taking heed of MIT’s burgeoning startup ecosystem, prompting him to contact his longtime medical-device colleague. “I remember Ívar called me one day and said, ‘Gauti, you have to come to MIT: Everyone’s starting companies,’” says Reynisson, a trained programmer who wrote early object-recognition code for the MedEye.

Seeking a change of pace from computer science, Reynisson enrolled in the MIT Sloan School of Management — where he saw that Helgason was right. “There was a spirit there, where you have to go for it, find a solution and market it, because if you don’t, no one else will,” he says. “That attitude, and seeing others do it, really inspires you to start a company and take the risk.”

Mint launched in 2009 with an initial concept design for MedEye. Entering that year’s MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition helped the three co-founders fine-tune their business plan and startup pitch, receiving help from mentors, professors, and even business-savvy students.

“That’s when we started to think of a business beyond the technology,” Reynisson says. “We left with a fairly sizeable business plan to take to investors and get funding.”

The team felt unsure of the technology at first. But a 2010 demonstration at a Dutch hospital of an early prototype — a bulkier version of the MedEye, with off-the-shelf parts, constructed at MIT — changed their perception. The hospital had to identify about 250 small, white pills of different medications that, in fact, all looked the same.

“We tried them all in our prototype at once, and it worked,” Reynisson says. “That’s when we realized what a change it would be for a hospital to collect data and important safety information, and get it fast and efficiently, without asking the nurse to pick up a pen.”

Mint Solution now has 40 MedEye systems ready to deploy across Europe in the coming months, with hopes of gaining some client feedback. In the future, Reynisson says, the startup has its sights on developing additional medication-safety technologies.

“At the core of the startup is this belief that better information technology in hospitals can both increase efficiency and safety, and lead to better outcomes,” he says. “We’re starting with verification of medication. But who knows what’s next?”

By Rob Matheson | MIT News Office

NASA has completed a complex series of tests on one of the largest composite cryogenic fuel tanks ever manufactured, bringing the aerospace industry much closer to designing, building, and flying lightweight, composite tanks on rockets. At NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the tank was lowered into a structural test stand where it was tested with cryogenic hydrogen and structural loads to simulate stresses the tank would experience during launch. The project is part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which is innovating, developing, testing and flying hardware for use in NASA’s future missions.
Cryogenic propellants are gasses chilled to subfreezing temperatures and condensed to form highly combustible liquids, providing high-energy propulsion solutions critical to future, long-term human exploration missions beyond low-Earth orbit. In the past, propellant tanks have been fabricated out of metals. Switching from metallic to composite construction holds the potential to dramatically increase the performance capabilities of future space systems through a dramatic reduction in weight.
> NASA Completes Successful Battery of Tests on Composite Cryotank
Image Credit: NASA/David Olive

Alan Guth, the Victor F. Weisskopf Professor of Physics at MIT, was awarded the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, announced yesterday by the Kavli Foundation in Oslo, linked by satellite to a session at the World Science Festival in New York.

Guth will share the $1 million prize with Andrei Linde of Stanford University and Alexei Starobinsky of the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics in Russia. Together, they are cited by the Kavli Foundation “for pioneering the theory of cosmic inflation.” 

Guth proposed the theory of cosmic inflation in 1980, the same year he joined the MIT faculty. The theory describes a period of extremely rapid exponential expansion within the first infinitesimal fraction of a second of the universe’s existence. At the end of inflation, approximately 14 billion years ago, the universe was in an extremely hot, dense, and small state, at the beginning of the more leisurely phase of expansion described by the conventional “Big Bang” theory. The conventional theory most successfully explains what happened after the bang, describing how the universe has cooled with expansion and how its expansion has been slowed by the attractive forces of gravity.

However, the conventional theory does not describe the mechanism that propelled the expansion of the universe in the first place, but the theory of cosmological inflation does: Guth hypothesized that the expansion of the universe was driven by repulsive gravitational forces generated by an exotic form of matter. Supported by three decades of development, including contributions from Linde, Andreas Albrecht, and Paul Steinhardt, Guth’s theory is now widely accepted by physicists.

The theory was further supported by an announcement in March by astronomers working on the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization telescope, which discovered evidence of gravitational waves produced by inflation. This experiment, however, has not yet been confirmed.

Cosmological inflation builds on general relativity’s description of gravity as a distortion of space-time, which allows for the possibility of repulsive gravity. At very high energies, like those that existed at the beginning of the universe, modern particle theory suggests that forms of matter that generate repulsive gravity should exist.

Inflation posits that this material inhabited at least a very small part of the universe, perhaps no more than 10-24 centimeters across, 100 billion times smaller than a proton. As the material began to expand, doubling every 10-37 seconds, any normal matter would thin out to a density of nearly zero.

Repulsive-gravity material behaves very differently, however, maintaining a constant density as it expands. While appearing to violate the principle of the conservation of energy, the constant density is enabled by an unusual feature of gravity: The energy of a gravitational field is negative.

As repulsive-gravity material exponentially expanded in the early universe, it created more and more energy in the form of matter. In turn, the gravitational field generated by matter created more and more negative energy.  The total energy remained constant. When inflation ended, the repulsive-gravity material decayed into a hot soup of the ordinary particles that would be the starting point for the conventional Big Bang.

Awarded in alternating years since 2008, the Kavli Prize recognizes outstanding scientific achievements in the categories of astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience. Guth, along with this year’s eight other recipients, will be presented with the award by King Harald of Norway at a ceremony in Oslo on Sept. 9.

The Kavli Prize was established in 2005 by the founder of the Kavli Foundation, Fred Kavli, as well as Kristin Clemet, Norway’s minister of education and research, and Jan Fridthjof Bernt, president of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Before the prize was established, Guth met Kavli several times, including at a dinner Kavli organized to discuss his philanthropic goals with a contingent of physicists. While opinions at the table differed, the group advised him against establishing the Kavli Prize.

“I don’t think I voiced an opinion on that subject,” Guth says, “but now I’m glad that we didn’t talk him out of it. I now think that prizes of this sort actually do help to put scientists in the spotlight, and that helps to elevate the status of scientists in the eyes of young people choosing careers. Nobody should go into science for the money, but it is important that science is viewed as something valued by society. Through the prizes and also through his funding of Kavli Institutes around the world, including at MIT, Fred Kavli has been crucially important in furthering the cause of science.”

Guth’s previous honors include election to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the Franklin Medal for Physics from the Franklin Institute; the Dirac Prize from the International Center for Theoretical Physics; the Cosmology Prize from the Peter Gruber Foundation; the Newton Prize of the Institute of Physics (U.K.); and the Fundamental Physics Prize of the Milner Foundation. 

By Bendta Schroeder | School of Science

Alan Jay Lazarus, senior research scientist emeritus at MIT, a gentle man, respectful of all and respected by all who knew him, died peacefully in his home in Lexington, Mass., on March 13 of complications with Lewy body dementia and with cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. He was 82.

Lazarus was born in San Francisco on October 24, 1931. His early education in California schools, completed with a year at Phillips Andover Academy, developed in him a love for learning, especially science. He had summer jobs at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge National Labs, while earning degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (SB 1953, in physics) and Stanford University (PhD 1958, in high-energy physics, under the direction of W. K. H. Panofsky). He did post-graduate work at the Rand Corporation.

Lazarus’ career at MIT, begun in 1959, spanned more than 50 years. He joined space research pioneers Bruno Rossi and Herbert Bridge to study space physics, focusing particularly on space plasma and the solar wind. At MIT’s Center for Space Research (now the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research), Lazarus helped develop instruments for more than 20 spacecraft missions to learn about the solar wind, including the plasma instruments on board Voyagers 1 and 2, launched in 1977, which are the first spacecraft to travel beyond the edge of our solar system. Instruments he developed continue to provide measurements of the solar wind plasma that buffets Earth, and of the distant boundary between solar plasma and the interstellar medium.

Lazarus was the principal investigator for a solar wind experiment on SOL-RAD 11. He was also a co-investigator for: a solar wind plasma experiment utilizing Faraday cup sensors on Explorers 10, 18, 33, and 35, which studied Earth’s magnetosphere; the Mariner 4, Mariner 5, and Mariner 10 missions to Venus and Mars; Pioneers 6 and 7 and Voyagers 1 and 2, which explored the outer solar system; the Imp-7, Imp-8, and Wind spacecraft focused on solar wind near Earth; the Orbiting Geophysical Observatories 1 and 3, which studied Earth’s magnetosphere; and the Giotto probe to Halley’s comet. He was the lead or co-author on more than 200 scientific papers. Lazarus’ DSCOVR Faraday Cup is scheduled to fly in early 2015 as a real-time beacon for NOAA space weather forecasting. Because it will be sun-pointed and make fast measurements, this instrument will be a prototype for a Faraday Cup on Solar Probe, on which he was a co-investigator, and which is scheduled for launch in 2018.

In addition to his research position, Lazarus was a senior lecturer in MIT’s Department of Physics. He cared deeply about his students and worked to bring delight to their learning experiences, in the first- and second-year physics courses taken by all MIT students (8.01 and 8.02), and by working to develop innovative teaching methods. He ran a modern laboratory course for physics majors that introduced students to techniques of classical and modern physics, and served as co-director of MIT’s Integrated Studies Program. Always ready to share his experience and love of MIT, Lazarus was a caring and devoted faculty advisor to many students over the years. In 1963 he was the first recipient of MIT’s Everett Moore Baker Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching. From 1977-1980 he was MIT’s Associate Dean of Students in Charge of Freshman Advising, where he was instrumental in the creation of the Undergraduate Academic Support Office. In 1998 he received the Department of Physics’ William W. Buechner Faculty Award for Teaching. 

Lazarus was a beloved colleague to his MIT compatriots, to the many graduate students and senior thesis students he mentored, and to the wider space physics community, nationally and internationally. “I really can’t think of another person in our field who would so frequently bring a smile to people’s faces as they remembered a time he helped them out, often as a student or post-doc just getting started, and often without asking or expecting anything in return,” says University of Michigan professor Justin Kasper, formerly of the Kavli Institute. “He really would help anyone who asked.” 

Lexington, Mass., was Lazarus’ home for 42 years. He was an active member of the community, serving as an elected Town Meeting member for 30 years and on various town boards and committees, from Appropriations to Hanscom Field Advisory. He was chair of the group that founded LexMedia, the town television station. He was also deeply interested in the town schools, especially in their teaching of science, and he served on the school system’s Science Advisory Council and as a judge for the high school’s science fairs.

Lazarus enjoyed swimming, sailing, and the rich atmosphere of MIT’s collegial community. He loved music, art, and culture, good food and drink, and the company of friends and family. He is survived by his wife of 43 years, Marianne; his daughter, Julia, of Providence, R.I.; his sister and brother-in-law Louise and Pieter de Vries of San Rafael, Calif.; a nephew; three nieces; and their six children. He will be missed by his many friends and colleagues, who gathered in Lexington on April 12 in celebration of his life.

To commemorate Lazarus’ dedication and devotion to advising and mentoring students, and to recognize him as a champion of faculty engagement with students, the Alan J. Lazarus (1953) Excellence in Advising Award has been established to be awarded annually to an MIT faculty member who has served as an excellent advisor and mentor to freshmen, and who has had a significant impact on their personal and academic success.  Those who wish to make a gift in support of this award may do so by contacting Bonny Kellermann ’72, MIT Director of Memorial Gifts, at or 617-253-9722.

By John Belcher | Marianne Lazarus | Julia Lazarus

The Earth’s magnetic field, or magnetosphere, stretches from the planet’s core out into space, where it meets the solar wind, a stream of charged particles emitted by the sun. For the most part, the magnetosphere acts as a shield to protect the Earth from this high-energy solar activity.

But when this field comes into contact with the sun’s magnetic field — a process called “magnetic reconnection” — powerful electrical currents from the sun can stream into Earth’s atmosphere, whipping up geomagnetic storms and space weather phenomena that can affect high-altitude aircraft, as well as astronauts on the International Space Station.

Now scientists at MIT and NASA have identified a process in the Earth’s magnetosphere that reinforces its shielding effect, keeping incoming solar energy at bay.

By combining observations from the ground and in space, the team observed a plume of low-energy plasma particles that essentially hitches a ride along magnetic field lines — streaming from Earth’s lower atmosphere up to the point, tens of thousands of kilometers above the surface, where the planet’s magnetic field connects with that of the sun. In this region, which the scientists call the “merging point,” the presence of cold, dense plasma slows magnetic reconnection, blunting the sun’s effects on Earth.

“The Earth’s magnetic field protects life on the surface from the full impact of these solar outbursts,” says John Foster, associate director of MIT’s Haystack Observatory. “Reconnection strips away some of our magnetic shield and lets energy leak in, giving us large, violent storms. These plasmas get pulled into space and slow down the reconnection process, so the impact of the sun on the Earth is less violent.”

Foster and his colleagues publish their results in this week’s issue of Science. The team includes Philip Erickson, principal research scientist at Haystack Observatory, as well as Brian Walsh and David Sibeck at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Mapping Earth’s magnetic shield

For more than a decade, scientists at Haystack Observatory have studied plasma plume phenomena using a ground-based technique called GPS-TEC, in which scientists analyze radio signals transmitted from GPS satellites to more than 1,000 receivers on the ground. Large space-weather events, such as geomagnetic storms, can alter the incoming radio waves — a distortion that scientists can use to determine the concentration of plasma particles in the upper atmosphere. Using this data, they can produce two-dimensional global maps of atmospheric phenomena, such as plasma plumes.

These ground-based observations have helped shed light on key characteristics of these plumes, such as how often they occur, and what makes some plumes stronger than others. But as Foster notes, this two-dimensional mapping technique gives an estimate only of what space weather might look like in the low-altitude regions of the magnetosphere. To get a more precise, three-dimensional picture of the entire magnetosphere would require observations directly from space.

Toward this end, Foster approached Walsh with data showing a plasma plume emanating from the Earth’s surface, and extending up into the lower layers of the magnetosphere, during a moderate solar storm in January 2013. Walsh checked the date against the orbital trajectories of three spacecraft that have been circling the Earth to study auroras in the atmosphere.

As it turns out, all three spacecraft crossed the point in the magnetosphere at which Foster had detected a plasma plume from the ground. The team analyzed data from each spacecraft, and found that the same cold, dense plasma plume stretched all the way up to where the solar storm made contact with Earth’s magnetic field.

A river of plasma

Foster says the observations from space validate measurements from the ground. What’s more, the combination of space- and ground-based data give a highly detailed picture of a natural defensive mechanism in the Earth’s magnetosphere.

“This higher-density, cold plasma changes about every plasma physics process it comes in contact with,” Foster says. “It slows down reconnection, and it can contribute to the generation of waves that, in turn, accelerate particles in other parts of the magnetosphere. So it’s a recirculation process, and really fascinating.”

Foster likens this plume phenomenon to a “river of particles,” and says it is not unlike the Gulf Stream, a powerful ocean current that influences the temperature and other properties of surrounding waters. On an atmospheric scale, he says, plasma particles can behave in a similar way, redistributing throughout the atmosphere to form plumes that “flow through a huge circulation system, with a lot of different consequences.”

“What these types of studies are showing is just how dynamic this entire system is,” Foster adds.

Tony Mannucci, supervisor of the Ionospheric and Atmospheric Remote Sensing Group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says that although others have observed magnetic reconnection, they have not looked at data closer to Earth to understand this connection.

“I believe this group was very creative and ingenious to use these methods to infer how plasma plumes affect magnetic reconnection,” says Mannucci, who was not involved in the research. “This discovery of the direct connection between a plasma plume and the magnetic shield surrounding Earth means that a new set of ground-based observations can be used to infer what is occurring deep in space, allowing us to understand and possibly forecast the implications of solar storms.”

By Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office

The following is adapted from an announcement today by Fermilab.

Scientists looking for dark matter face a serious challenge: No one knows what dark matter particles look like. So their search covers a wide range of possible traits — different masses, different probabilities of interacting with regular matter.

Today, scientists on the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search experiment, or CDMS, announced that they have shifted the border of this search down to a dark-matter particle mass and rate of interaction that has never been probed.

The analysis, led by Adam Anderson, an MIT graduate student in physics, is the first dark matter result using a new sensor technology — developed, in part, at MIT — that shows much better rejection of background events than the previous generation of CDMS detectors. The work was presented today at the Symposium on Sources and Detection of Dark Matter and Dark Energy in the Universe, held at the University of California at Los Angeles.

“We’re pushing CDMS to as low mass as we can,” says Fermilab physicist Dan Bauer, the project manager for CDMS. “We’re proving the particle detector technology here.”

The result, which does not claim any hints of dark matter particles, contradicts a result announced in January by another dark matter experiment, CoGeNT, which uses particle detectors made of germanium, the same material as used by CDMS.

To search for dark matter, CDMS scientists cool their detectors to very low temperatures in order to detect the very small energies deposited by the collisions of dark matter particles with the germanium. They operate their detectors half a mile underground in a former iron ore mine in northern Minnesota. The mine provides shielding from cosmic rays that could clutter the detector as it waits for passing dark matter particles.

Today’s result carves out interesting new dark matter territory for masses below 6 gigaelectronvolts (GeV). The dark matter experiment Large Underground Xenon, or LUX, recently ruled out a wide range of masses and interaction rates above that with the announcement of its first result last October.  

Scientists have expressed increasing interest in the search for low-mass dark matter particles, with CDMS and three other experiments — DAMA, CoGeNT, and CRESST — all finding their data compatible with the existence of dark matter particles between 5 and 20 GeV. But such light dark-matter particles are hard to pin down. The lower the mass of the dark-matter particles, the less energy they leave in detectors, and the more likely it is that background noise will drown out any signals.

Even more confounding is the fact that scientists don’t know whether dark matter particles interact in the same way in detectors built with different materials. In addition to germanium, scientists use argon, xenon, silicon, and other materials to search for dark matter in more than a dozen experiments around the world.

“It’s important to look in as many materials as possible to try to understand whether dark matter interacts in this more complicated way,” says Anderson, who worked on the latest CDMS analysis as part of his MIT thesis. “Some materials might have very weak interactions. If you only picked one, you might miss it.”

Scientists around the world seem to be taking that advice, building different types of detectors and constantly improving their methods.

“Progress is extremely fast,” Anderson says. “The sensitivity of these experiments is increasing by an order of magnitude every few years.”
By News Office

Looking for first light

August 28, 2014

From a cosmic perspective, one could argue that we all come from stars.

Nearly 14 billion years ago, the Big Bang spawned the universe, yielding a primordial mixture of dark matter and gas within the first few minutes. The lightest elements in this gas — hydrogen and helium — were fused in the Big Bang itself, but the other elements that have since evolved into solar systems, planets, and living organisms were formed much later.

Scientists have traced production of these heavier elements, such as carbon and oxygen, to nuclear fusion within stars. But what exactly created the first stars, and when did that happen?

This question of stellar origin is the focus of Robert Simcoe, an associate professor of physics at MIT. Using telescopes on Earth and in space, Simcoe is peering far into the universe’s past, searching for a period when the first stars blinked on.

“What my field is progressing toward is [an understanding of] when and how the first stars turned on, and when galaxies started to look like they do today,” says Simcoe, who recently earned tenure. “We’re starting to see distant objects [with] very low chemical content. That’s one hint that you’re getting to an interesting time.”

Simcoe’s work indicates that something interesting may have taken place a mere 750 million years after the Big Bang, when the universe was only 5 percent of its present age. Last year, he was part of a team that observed the most distant known quasar — a galaxy that shines especially brightly because of an accreting black hole at its center; the light from this object has been traveling to Earth since then. Yet in the quasar’s immediate surroundings, the team found a large structure of diffuse hydrogen gas with no evidence of heavy metals. The finding suggested that this early quasar belonged to a period in which stars had yet to appear and pollute their surroundings. Simcoe says more distant quasars will have to be discovered and characterized before scientists can confirm exactly when the first stars arose — but the recent detection of pristine gas is a promising start.

“Right now it’s a pretty fuzzy boundary of what we’re looking for,” Simcoe says. “But you might as well think expansively.”

Expanding an astronomer’s view

Simcoe began thinking expansively as a child. He grew up in Westborough, Mass., a suburb west of Boston, where the night sky offered clear views of distant stars. A third-grade project on space sparked Simcoe’s interest in observation, and he saved up for a small telescope, which he used in his backyard to pick out constellations. But the telescope’s magnification was too weak to detect far-off galaxies.

One weekend, Simcoe’s father took him on a road trip to Vermont, where amateur telescope-makers had gathered to swap parts and discuss building techniques. The Simcoes came away with a piece of glass that they honed over a period of weeks in the family basement, grinding with progressively finer abrasives to shape the curvature of an optical telescope objective. They fitted the mirror into a cardboard tube, and pointed it at the sky. The payoff was worth the work: Suddenly, Simcoe had a view of multiple galaxies, including Andromeda, and gaseous nebulae around the Milky Way.

An avid musician in high school, Simcoe also contemplated a future as a pianist. But when an audition at the Tanglewood summer music festival in western Massachusetts fell through, he reconsidered. An advertisement in the back of an astronomy magazine convinced him to try astronomy camp, and he soon headed to Arizona, where he learned to observe the sky with even stronger telescopes.

The experience propelled him to Princeton University, where, as an undergraduate, he played a minor part in a major project: the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the largest, most detailed map of the universe to date, depicting hundreds of thousands of galaxies and quasars.

“This was one of the biggest experiments to happen in astronomy in the last 20 years,” Simcoe recalls. “It was the first time people made a digital map of a good chunk of the sky, and that seemed exciting and ambitious to me.”

The beginnings of a star search

From Princeton, Simcoe headed west, to the California Institute of Technology, where, as a graduate student, he started digging into the mystery of the first stars. At the time, scientific theory held that heavy elements like oxygen and carbon would only be found near the stars and galaxies that produced them. But astronomers began to observe evidence of chemicals far from any galaxy — a puzzle that theories failed to explain.

In his thesis, Simcoe analyzed the distribution of chemicals throughout the universe, and came up with an estimate of the volume of chemicals that may have leaked out of galaxies. His work ultimately informed more realistic models for how galaxies evolve.

“We used to think of galaxies as little vacuum cleaners: They would suck in gas and turn it into stars,” Simcoe explains. “Instead, it’s almost like they’re a factory, taking in pure pristine gas from the Big Bang, polluting it with these other chemicals and spewing it back out.”

Looking for ‘generation zero’

In 2000, a group of universities commissioned the twin Magellan Telescopes in Chile, affording a view of extremely distant objects, like the old quasars and galaxies that help in identifying the era of the first stars. MIT is a shareholder in the telescopes, meaning the Institute’s researchers have regular access to the facility — an opportunity Simcoe seized.

He joined MIT’s physics department as a Pappalardo Postdoctoral Fellow in 2003, and soon after, accepted a faculty position. Since then, he has taken a handful of trips each year to Chile, spending a week at a time at the telescopes, in the remote Atacama Desert.

The observatory includes a dormitory, where scientists sleep during the day. Before nightfall, they rise to calibrate the telescopes before heading to the dining hall.

“Around the dinner table you can get all the scuttlebutt from different places,” Simcoe says. “It’s outside the conference circuit, where everyone’s more formal. Here, everyone’s tired, off their guard — it’s very much like camp.”

When the sun goes down, the work begins, as astronomers spend the night analyzing readouts of objects captured by the telescopes. Based on such observations, Simcoe has identified a number of far-off objects, including the quasar whose spectrum lacked heavy elements.

In the next few years, Simcoe will continue looking for signs of the universe’s first stars, using Magellan, other observatories on Earth, and the Hubble Space Telescope. Today’s stars are produced with “a little carbon and oxygen sprinkled in with gas,” he says. But immediately following the Big Bang, only hydrogen and helium were in any supply. Simcoe says the very first stars may have formed from molecular hydrogen cooling — a very different process than the atomic cooling from carbon and oxygen that gives rise to today’s stars. Detecting far-off stars composed of hydrogen alone, he says, remains a distant goal for astronomers.

“Once you’ve reached those, you know you’re at generation zero,” Simcoe says. “We don’t know exactly when that happened, or how we’re going to get there. But we think we’re in the right ballpark as far as how far back we need to look.”

By Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office

To get an idea of how the early solar system may have formed, scientists often look to asteroids. These relics of rock and dust represent what today’s planets may have been before they differentiated into bodies of core, mantle, and crust.

In the 1980s, scientists’ view of the solar system’s asteroids was essentially static: Asteroids that formed near the sun remained near the sun; those that formed farther out stayed on the outskirts. But in the last decade, astronomers have detected asteroids with compositions unexpected for their locations in space: Those that looked like they formed in warmer environments were found further out in the solar system, and vice versa. Scientists considered these objects to be anomalous “rogue” asteroids.

But now, a new map developed by researchers from MIT and the Paris Observatory charts the size, composition, and location of more than 100,000 asteroids throughout the solar system, and shows that rogue asteroids are actually more common than previously thought. Particularly in the solar system’s main asteroid belt — between Mars and Jupiter — the researchers found a compositionally diverse mix of asteroids.

The new asteroid map suggests that the early solar system may have undergone dramatic changes before the planets assumed their current alignment. For instance, Jupiter may have drifted closer to the sun, dragging with it a host of asteroids that originally formed in the colder edges of the solar system, before moving back out to its current position. Jupiter’s migration may have simultaneously knocked around more close-in asteroids, scattering them outward.

“It’s like Jupiter bowled a strike through the asteroid belt,” says Francesca DeMeo, who did much of the mapping as a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “Everything that was there moves, so you have this melting pot of material coming from all over the solar system.”

DeMeo says the new map will help theorists flesh out such theories of how the solar system evolved early in its history. She and Benoit Carry of the Paris Observatory have published details of the map in Nature.

From a trickle to a river

To create a comprehensive asteroid map, the researchers first analyzed data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which uses a large telescope in New Mexico to take in spectral images of hundreds of thousands of galaxies. Included in the survey is data from more than 100,000 asteroids in the solar system. DeMeo grouped these asteroids by size, location, and composition. She defined this last category by asteroids’ origins — whether in a warmer or colder environment — a characteristic that can be determined by whether an asteroid’s surface is more reflective at redder or bluer wavelengths.

The team then had to account for any observational biases. While the survey includes more than 100,000 asteroids, these are the brightest such objects in the sky. Asteroids that are smaller and less reflective are much harder to pick out, meaning that an asteroid map based on observations may unintentionally leave out an entire population of asteroids.

To avoid any bias in their mapping, the researchers determined that the survey most likely includes every asteroid down to a diameter of five kilometers. At this size limit, they were able to produce an accurate picture of the asteroid belt. The researchers grouped the asteroids by size and composition, and mapped them into distinct regions of the solar system where the asteroids were observed.

From their map, they observed that for larger asteroids, the traditional pattern holds true: The further one gets from the sun, the colder the asteroids appear. But for smaller asteroids, this trend seems to break down. Those that look to have formed in warmer environments can be found not just close to the sun, but throughout the solar system — and asteroids that resemble colder bodies beyond Jupiter can also be found in the inner asteroid belt, closer to Mars.

As the team writes in its paper, “the trickle of asteroids discovered in unexpected locations has turned into a river. We now see that all asteroid types exist in every region of the main belt.”

A shifting solar system

The compositional diversity seen in this new asteroid map may add weight to a theory of planetary migration called the Grand Tack model. This model lays out a scenario in which Jupiter, within the first few million years of the solar system’s creation, migrated as close to the sun as Mars is today. During its migration, Jupiter may have moved right through the asteroid belt, scattering its contents and repopulating it with asteroids from both the inner and outer solar system before moving back out to its current position — a picture that is very different from the traditional, static view of a solar system that formed and stayed essentially in place for the past 4.5 billion years.

“That [theory] has been completely turned on its head,” DeMeo says. “Today we think the absolute opposite: Everything’s been moved around a lot and the solar system has been very dynamic.”

Clark Chapman, a senior research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., says the new map is a welcome update to the asteroid maps he and his colleagues developed in the 1980s, which included only those asteroids measuring 20 kilometers or more in diameter. In the past two decades, he says, scientists have made leaps in their understanding of asteroids’ dynamics and evolutionary history, which DeMeo and Carry have now put into context.

“What they have done is attempted to at least qualitatively describe how the unexpected relationships between asteroid size, distance from the sun, and composition fit into the current dynamical models and other insights from the past two decades,” Chapman says. “I’m very glad that this basic research has been done, and I think it is a most welcome contribution to understanding the solar system.”

DeMeo adds that the early pinballing of asteroids around the solar system may have had big impacts — literally — on Earth. For instance, colder asteroids that formed further out likely contained ice. When they were brought closer in by planetary migrations, they may have collided with Earth, leaving remnants of ice that eventually melted into water.

“The story of what the asteroid belt is telling us also relates to how Earth developed water, and how it stayed in this Goldilocks region of habitability today,” DeMeo says.

By Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office

For nearly as long as astronomers have been able to observe asteroids, a question has gone unanswered: Why do the surfaces of most asteroids appear redder than meteorites — the remnants of asteroids that have crashed to Earth?

In 2010, Richard Binzel, a professor of planetary sciences at MIT, identified a likely explanation: Asteroids orbiting in our solar system’s main asteroid belt, situated between Mars and Jupiter, are exposed to cosmic radiation, changing the chemical nature of their surfaces and reddening them over time. By contrast, Binzel found that asteroids that venture out of the main belt and pass close to Earth feel the effects of Earth’s gravity, causing “asteroid quakes” that shift surface grains, exposing fresh grains underneath. When these “refreshed” asteroids get too close to Earth, they break apart and fall to its surface as meteorites.

Since then, scientists have thought that close encounters with Earth play a key role in refreshing asteroids. But now Binzel and colleague Francesca DeMeo have found that Mars can also stir up asteroid surfaces, if in close enough contact. The team calculated the orbits of 60 refreshed asteroids, and found that 10 percent of these never cross Earth’s orbit. Instead, these asteroids only come close to Mars, suggesting that the Red Planet can refresh the surfaces of these asteroids.

“We don’t think Earth is the only major driver anymore, and it opens our minds to the possibility that there are other things happening in the solar system causing these asteroids to be refreshed,” says DeMeo, who did much of the work as a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

DeMeo and Binzel, along with former MIT research associate Matthew Lockhart, have published their findings in the journal Icarus.

Asteroid roulette

The idea that Mars may shake up the surface of an asteroid is a surprising one: As Binzel points out, the planet is one-third the size of Earth, and one-tenth as massive — and therefore exerts a far weaker gravitational pull on surrounding objects. But Mars’ position in the solar system places the planet in close proximity with the asteroid belt, increasing the chance of close asteroid encounters.

“Mars is right next to the asteroid belt, and in a way it gets more opportunity than the Earth does to refresh asteroids,” Binzel says. “So that may be a balancing factor.”

DeMeo, who suspected that Mars may have a hand in altering asteroid surfaces, looked through an asteroid database created by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center. The database currently consists of observations of 300,000 asteroids and their orbits; 10,000 of these are considered near-Earth asteroids.

Over the past decade, Binzel’s group has tracked the brightest of these asteroids, measuring their colors to determine which may have been refreshed recently. For this most recent paper, the researchers looked at 60 such asteroids, mapping out the orbit of each and determining which orbits had intersected with those of Earth or Mars. DeMeo then calculated the probability, over the last 500,000 years, that an asteroid and either planet would have intersected, creating a close encounter that could potentially generate asteroid quakes.

“Picture Mars and an asteroid going through an intersection, and sometimes they’ll both come through at very nearly the same time,” Binzel says. “If they just barely miss each other, that’s close enough for Mars’ gravity to tug on [the asteroid] and shake it up. It ends up being this random process as to how these things happen, and how often.”

Refreshing the face of an asteroid

From their calculations, the researchers found that 10 percent of their sample of asteroids only cross Mars’ orbit, and not Earth’s. DeMeo explored other potential causes of asteroid refreshing, calculating the probability of asteroids colliding with each other, as well as the possibility for a phenomenon called “spin-up,” in which energy from the sun causes the asteroid to rotate faster and faster, possibly disrupting its surface. From her calculations, DeMeo found no conclusive evidence that either event would significantly refresh asteroids, suggesting that “Mars is the only game in town,” Binzel says.

Although 10 percent of 60 asteroids may not seem like a significant number, DeMeo notes that given Mars’ small size, the fact that the planet may have an effect on one out of 10 asteroids is noteworthy. “Mars is more powerful than we expected,” she says.

Vishnu Reddy, associate research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., says the possibility that Mars may weather passing asteroids provides scientists with one of potentially many weathering sources in space.

“On each of the asteroids we have visited so far, every one of them has shown a different kind of space weathering,” says Reddy, who was not involved in the research. “So it appears that not only is composition an important factor, but also the location of the asteroid with respect to the sun.”

The researchers add that now that Mars has been proven to refresh asteroids, other planets, such as Venus, may have similar capabilities — particularly since Venus is closer in mass to Earth.

“You think about these asteroids going around the sun doing their own thing, but there’s really a lot more going on in their histories,” says DeMeo, who is now a postdoc at Harvard University. “This gives you a dynamic idea of the lives of asteroids.”

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation.

By Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office

Last week, scientists in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences helped characterize three large, near-Earth asteroids, two of which measure about 12 miles in diameter — the largest asteroids to have been discovered in 23 years. The smallest of the three asteroids measures little more than a mile across, but it may pass within 3.4 million miles of Earth, making it a “potentially hazardous asteroid.”

The team made their measurements using NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii as part of a project devoted to determining the compositions of new comets and asteroids relatively close to Earth. While these newest asteroids pose little danger to our planet in the near future, they possess some unusual features. MIT News spoke with Richard Binzel, a professor of planetary sciences, about his team’s measurements, and the likelihood of a close encounter.

Q: What are you able to tell about these three asteroids from your brief observations of them?

A: So far, we have made spectral color measurements of only the strangest one of these: 2013 UQ4. (These are names only scientists can love!) This object is coming from out beyond Pluto, from the region we call the Kuiper Belt. And to top it off, it is also orbiting in a backward direction compared to all the planets. Nearly all of the 1,000 currently known Kuiper Belt objects reside in orbits that at all times keep them at least as far away as Neptune. This new object, “UQ4,” is on an orbit that carries it closer to the sun than Mars, meaning that it comes rather close to the Earth. From our spectral measurements, we can estimate that its composition is likely carbon-rich, meaning the surface is very dark, reflecting only about 4 percent of the sunlight that hits it. Even though this object does not reflect very much light, the fact that we can see it in our telescopes implies that it must be rather large. From our measurements, we deduce it is nearly 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, across.

Q: The last large asteroid was detected 23 years ago. Why haven’t these new asteroids been detected until now? And what conditions made it possible for you to see them?

A: These newly found objects are in orbits that usually keep them rather far from the sun, meaning they are too faint to see. In addition to being far from the sun, they also spend most of their time way above or way below the plane where the Earth and other planets orbit — thus they are far from where astronomers concentrate most of their searches. So it has been a combination of these objects just happening to be getting close enough to the sun and the ongoing diligence of search teams that has revealed them to be there.

Q: What hazard, if any, do these near-Earth asteroids pose to our planet?

A: Fortunately, none of these objects poses any foreseeable hazard to Earth. Only one, 2013 UP8, approaches Earth’s orbit close enough to merit the categorization as “potentially hazardous.” All that means is that astronomers have a long-term interest to continue to track its orbit.
By Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office