September 2017 Newsletter: Dr. Essam Marouf Reflects on Cassini’s Last Orbit

Professor Essam Marouf, an original member of NASA's Radio Science Team for the Cassini-Huygens Mission, meets with the media on Sept. 13 in the Engineering building on the grounds of SJSU. (James Tensuan/San Jose State University)

Professor Essam Marouf, an original member of NASA’s Radio Science Team for the Cassini-Huygens Mission, meets with the media on Sept. 13 in the Engineering building on the grounds of SJSU. (James Tensuan/San Jose State University)

By David Goll

Standing 22 feet high,13 feet across and weighing in at 4,685 pounds, the Cassini spacecraft was one of the largest spacecraft ever launched from Earth. A joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and Italian Space Agency, Cassini spent 13 years orbiting the ringed planet of Saturn, compiling an enormous amount of data on the solar system’s second-largest planet, its rings and two of its most well-known moons—massive Titan and smaller Enceladus.

The Cassini orbiter also played a huge role in the career of prominent San José State University academician Dr. Essam Marouf, an Electrical Engineering professor and Associate Dean of Research. He spent 26 years as part of the Cassini Radio Science research team, beginning work on the project six years before it was launched Oct. 15, 1997, from Florida’s Cape Canaveral. He was one of more than 300 science “investigators” from around the world who interpreted data collected by the spacecraft during its 293 orbits of Saturn and transmitted via radio signals.

On Sept. 15 — exactly one month short of the 20th anniversary of that launch – Dr. Marouf joined with hundreds of other scientists from around the world who gathered before dawn at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena to bid their orbiting friend a big, and surprisingly emotional, goodbye.

After twice extending the mission that was originally supposed to end in 2008, space agency officials presided over a planned destruction of Cassini in the atmosphere of Saturn, as it burned up like a meteor to avoid contaminating the planet’s moons. After 20 years in space, Cassini was simply running out of fuel.

“We knew for a long time this day would come,” said Dr. Marouf, who joined the SJSU Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering in 1990, a year after he first heard about the Cassini project while still a Stanford University researcher. “So, it did not come as a surprise. But when it finally did happen, it was very emotional, after devoting so many years of my career to this spacecraft.”

Dr. Marouf likened witnessing the final radio signal from the craft to a death of sorts. It came at 4:55 a.m.

“It was sort of like watching the last signals of life from the monitors inside an operating room when a patient dies,” he said. “It was hard to watch. Cassini went from a healthy, functioning spacecraft to being pulverized into pieces within 45 seconds.”

During its two decades of life, Cassini was a wildly successful project. The data collected from gaseous Saturn, its distinctive rings, and its surprising moons have brought a wealth of new information.

“The moons turned out to be kind of the stars of the show,” Dr. Marouf said with a chuckle.

That’s because of Cassini and its accompanying Huygens lander—which alighted on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, in 2005—discovered similar conditions to what Earth was like before life evolved. Titan has dry lake beds suggesting the former presence of liquid, but also existing seas consisting of liquid methane and ethane.

It was also discovered that icy, frigid Enceladus, the sixth-largest of the ringed planet’s 62 moons, shows evidence of a subterranean ocean comprised of hydrocarbon compounds in liquid form. They erupt to the moon’s surface through geysers spewing ice crystals. Scientists say the discovery of these conditions makes primitive life possible.

“We discovered through Cassini that Saturn itself has complex storms that can last for up to one (Earth) year,” Dr. Marouf said, adding that one year on Saturn is equivalent to 29 Earth years. “Its rings are very complex and consist of particles that can be as small as a grain of sand or as large as a house. Cassini brought a flood of knowledge.”

Helping Dr. Marouf analyze that deluge of information from Cassini has been numerous students, as well as research assistants and associates, over the years. Among them has been Kwok Wong, involved in San José State’s Cassini Radio Science project for 14 years, starting as a grad student taking courses from Dr. Marouf. Wong now is a full-time research associate.

“His help with the data processing throughout the years has been significant,” Dr. Marouf said of Wong.

For his part, Wong will remain on the Cassini team along with Dr. Marouf for another year.
“We will continue to process the data until the Cassini project officially ends next September (2018),” Wong said.

This past July, a couple of months before Cassini met its timely end in the atmosphere above Saturn, Dr. Marouf made another trip to Southern California to conduct his final Cassini experiments at the JPL facility, owned by NASA but managed by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The visit was a family affair for the San José State professor.

“My daughter, who is a doctor in Boston, brought my grandchildren to accompany me to JPL,” Dr. Marouf said. “My daughter has been hearing about Cassini since she was a young girl.”

And Cassini was not her father’s first involvement with deep space probes. As a senior research scientist at Stanford for 15 years, Dr. Marouf got involved in data analysis for both the Voyager 1 and 2 missions by NASA launched in 1977. Both did fly-by analysis of the outer solar system —including Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune—between 1979 and 1989.

“We got so much beautiful data from Voyager’s visit to Jupiter in 1979 and Saturn in 1980,” he said of the predecessors to Cassini.

Unlike Cassini, however, the Voyager crafts have still yet to meet their destruction. Voyager 1 is the first spacecraft to leave the sun’s atmosphere and magnetic field, traveling into interstellar space.

“We just celebrated the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Voyager space crafts,” Dr. Marouf said. “They’re still sending data back to Earth.”

September 2017 Newsletter: Provost Update: SJSU Faculty Achievements, the Strategic Planning Kickoff Event and Community Conversations, and a Busy Fall 2017

Welcome back.

Fall 2017 is well underway. The campus is energized after the calm summer months. Approximately 4,500 first-time freshmen can be seen between classes admiring the 23-foot statue of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City or on skateboards darting to the Student Union. Professors head to lecture halls focused on their classes ahead. College Success Centers are abuzz with students seeking support to change majors, see advisors –we’ve added 20 new ones — and to learn about MyGPS, a suite of technology tools that put academic and graduation support in the palms of students’ hands. MyGPS is a great resource for staff, allowing departments increased accessibility to information to excel student success. Advisors and chairs can access the Student Data Warehouse (SDW) to access reports related to enrollment planning and student progress.

As we begin another academic year, the accomplishments of our colleagues since last May leaves me inspired. Dr. Matthew Spangler became the first San José State University faculty member to win the prestigious Leslie Irene Coger Award for Distinguished Performance. At the same time, the 15th production of his stage-adapted version of the novel, “The Kite Runner,” wrapped its eight-month run in London’s famed West End theater district.

Dr. Peg Hughes and Everett Smith worked diligently over the summer to reinstate and prepare the four courses that make up the new Deaf minor on hiatus from San José State University for approximately a decade. Dr. Hughes and Smith talk passionately in their interview about Deaf culture, adapting and creating new curricula for the minor, and the future of special education.

Dr. Essam Marouf, an electrical engineering professor and associate dean of Research, had an emotionally charged September as he gathered with other researchers to witness the last radio signal from the Cassini spacecraft, one of the largest spacecraft ever launched from Earth. Dr. Marouf spent 26 years on the Cassini Radio Science research team interpreting data transmitted via radio signals during Cassini’s 293 orbits of Saturn.

In just five weeks, so much has happened. More than 33,000 students enrolled and began classes. On September 13, 300 faculty, staff, administrators, campus leadership, and students attended the Strategic Planning Kickoff Event. In her opening remarks, President Mary Papazian challenged our campus community to embrace bold visions for our University’s future.

The following week we hosted Campus Conversations and asked tenured and tenure-track faculty, lecturers, staff, and students how they wanted SJSU to evolve. Their answers laid the foundation for this year’s strategic planning process, and, ultimately, our next decade of growth.

We continue our search for new academic deans in the College of Humanities and the Arts, the Lurie College of Education, and the College of Science. Last week brought a visit from the Western Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC) accreditation team to gather information and monitor our advances in the areas of leadership, organizational climate, shared governance and a campus climate. Upon leaving, they provided a video exit review with their conclusions, the WSCUC Team Special Visit Report.

The world around us is just as busy. We had the first total solar eclipse visible on U.S. soil in a generation, only seen as a partial eclipse for San José, and a heat wave where we couldn’t escape the sun’s blaze. Hurricanes struck Houston, Florida, the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico, and earthquakes devastated Mexico. The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas further destabilized our nation’s sense of unity and safety. Political storms continue to divide the country and challenge the very fabric of diversity San José State celebrates and holds dear.

We as Spartans must stay united, remain vigilant, and focus on what great things we may accomplish in the future. The Office of the Provost, University Library, Office of Research and Spartan Bookstore are sponsoring the Annual Author & Artists Awards for 2017 on Friday, November 3, 2017, from 6:30-8:30 PM in King Library on the 8th floor in the Grand Reading Room. The celebratory event is designed to recognize faculty and staff who have published a book or other major works of general interest and significance in 2017.

The Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association will again award two faculty members the ERFA Faculty Research and Creative Activity Awards to support their scholarly and creative activity. Each year since 2014, ERFA has given two faculty members $2,500 to advance their careers.

May we all be a challenged and inspired this semester and may our academic, research, and scholarship pursuits provide us wisdom, knowledge, and achievement.

Andy Feinstein
Provost and Senior VP for Academic Affairs