Student-Built, Dime-Sized Instrument Is Venus-bound on NASA’s DAVINCI

DAVINCI Descent Sphere above Venus
DAVINCI will send a meter-diameter probe to brave the high temperatures and pressures near Venus’ surface to explore the atmosphere from above the clouds to near the surface of a terrain that may have been a past continent. During its final kilometers of free-fall descent (artist’s impression shown here), the probe will capture spectacular images and chemistry measurements of the deepest atmosphere on Venus for the first time.
Credits: NASA/GSFC/CI Labs

Venus Oxygen Fugacity (VfOx) is a small, button-sized sensor aboard NASA’s DAVINCI mission to Venus’ atmosphere that will be designed, fabricated, tested, operated, and analyzed by undergraduate and graduate students as the mission’s Student Collaboration Experiment.

Planned for launch in 2029, the DAVINCI mission (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) will send a spacecraft and a probe to Venus to investigate numerous unsolved mysteries of the planet. Prior to dropping its descent probe into the Venus atmosphere, the spacecraft will perform two flybys of the planet, taking measurements of clouds and ultraviolet absorption on the Venusian day side, and taking measurements of heat emanating from the planet’s surface on the night side. Two years after launch, the mission’s probe, called the Descent Sphere, will enter the Venus atmosphere, ingesting and analyzing atmospheric gases and collecting images as it descends to the surface of the planet at the Alpha Regio region.

VfOx will be mounted on the outside of the Descent Sphere, where it will measure the oxygen fugacity – the partial pressure of the oxygen – in the deep atmosphere beneath Venus’ clouds, including the near-surface environment.

By analyzing these ground-breaking VfOx measurements, scientists will, for the first time, seek to identify what minerals are most stable at the surface of Venus in the highlands and link the formation of rocks to their recent modification histories. VfOx will measure the amount of oxygen present near the surface of Venus as a “fingerprint” of the rock-atmosphere reactions that are going on today. The balance of how much oxygen is present in the atmosphere, compared to the amount of oxygen captured in the rocks of Venus, will provide information towards a new understanding of the surface minerals in a mountainous region of Venus (known as “tessera”) that has never been visited by a spacecraft.

Understanding how much oxygen is contained in Venus’ atmosphere will be important in preparation for characterizing Venus-like worlds beyond our solar system with the JWST and future observatories. How much oxygen Venus has in its deepest atmosphere will help scientists studying these remote worlds distinguish between oxygen produced by life, such as what happens on Earth, from oxygen produced solely by abiotic chemical planetary processes, such as what happens on Venus.

The instrument will operate similarly to the oxygen sensor in many automobile engines, which measures the amount of oxygen in the fuel system relative to other components of the fuel. Like all instruments aboard the DAVINCI Descent Sphere, VfOx must be adapted to survive Venus’ inhospitable atmosphere. Even though temperatures at the surface of the planet are hot enough to melt lead, the temperatures in internal combustion car engines are even hotter, so VfOx will operate in a comparatively cooler environment on Venus. Additionally, VfOx will be built out of ceramic, a material that is resistant to temperature changes.

The motivating goal for DAVINCI’s Student Collaboration Experiment is educating and training young scientists and engineers in planetary science and engineering skills and providing a real-world application for those skills. “We are trying to engage and encourage the next generation of planetary scientists and engineers,” says Dr. Noam Izenberg, principal research staff at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, and student collaboration lead for VfOx on DAVINCI.

Students will build the VfOx instrument, analyze the data it returns from Venus, and participate in science activities with the DAVINCI science team. Students involved will be advised by faculty at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The excitement of being actively involved with a real space-flight mission as an undergraduate may be one of the best incentives to attract a diverse group of students to this project. “We want to attract more students from all backgrounds, including the less-advantaged and the less-represented,” says Dr. Izenberg. “There will be lots of mentors across the board – on the mission and science side, and the engineering side – where students can find not just mentors of the professions that they might be looking for, but also mentors who look like them, because the DAVINCI team itself is fairly good in its own diversity.”

Johns Hopkins will be working in collaboration with the Applied Physics Lab to plan and implement the student experiment. Johns Hopkins will also work in collaboration with the Maryland Institute College of Arts in Baltimore, which has an extreme arts institute that will be involved with an intersection between science and art. The Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute in Baltimore will help coordinate this project, and Morgan State University in Baltimore is an intended partner.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, is the principal investigator institution for DAVINCI and will perform project management and scientific leadership for the mission, as well as project systems engineering to develop the probe flight system. Goddard also leads the project science support team and provides two key instruments on the probe.

Prototype VfOx instrument
These images of a prototype of the shirt-button-sized VfOx instrument show the disk of the sensor itself. It has a diameter of just under one centimeter (almost 0.4 inches) and will be located on the side of the DAVINCI Descent Sphere.
Credits: Johns Hopkins APL

Brooke Hess
​NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland

Media Contacts:

Bill Steigerwald
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland
[email protected]

This article originally appeared on the NASA website.

Christopher Stiles appointed as a HEMI Fellow

Christopher D. Stiles has been appointed as the newest HEMI Fellow.

Stiles is currently a Multiscale Mathematical Modeling Section Supervisor with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory whose research focuses on multiscale computational modeling of materials and their interaction with dynamic environments. For the last several years, Stiles has acted as a bridge between data scientists and physical scientists specializing in fields ranging from quantum engineering, to materials science, to chemistry, to biology, and more.

He teaches the Symmetries in Crystalline Solids course in the Johns Hopkins University Engineering for Professionals program and is developing courses in materials discovery enabled by AI. Additional areas of expertise include machine learning, molecular/synthetic biology, and multiscale phenomena.

A HEMI Fellow must be able to be a principal investigator on a research grant as defined by Homewood Academic Council. All privileges accorded by Homewood Academic Council are de jure available to HEMI Fellows. Typically, this means they are Johns Hopkins University tenured and tenure-track faculty, research faculty or Applied Physics Laboratory professional staff.

HEMI researchers create lightweight material to improve military armor, automobile and aerospace parts

A team of Johns Hopkins University researchers have created energy-absorbing material that is lighter, absorbs more impact than metal, and is reusable.

The research team discovered that liquid crystal elastomers (LCEs), a reusable and highly energy-absorbing material, can be incorporated into military armor and automobile and aerospace parts to increase their impact absorption capability. As part of its analysis, the research team reports its efforts to use LCEs to develop the lightweight energy-absorbing material in a recently published Advanced Materials article.

“Vicky Nguyen, another fellow in HEMI, informed me of liquid crystal elastomers, and we observed this material has a very good energy absorption capability, which increases at higher speeds, said senior author Sung Hoon Kang, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and HEMI Fellow. “We continued examining liquid crystal elastomers, revisited my previous research about how geometric designs correlate with energy absorption, and discovered there is synergy between this material and geometry that enhances energy absorption capability.”

The inspiration for this research stems from Kang’s examination of how car bumpers absorb impact and previous work on meta-material that absorbs energy from impact. To address the current challenges of energy-absorbing materials, the research team investigated energy absorption behavior of a form-like LCE structures over a wide range of impact speeds by measuring their responses. Besides, they also applied computer simulations to help understand how the LCE material behavior and the geometry synergistically contributed to energy absorption.

Currently, Kang is cultivating a collaboration with other researchers and a helmet company to design, fabricate, and test next-generation helmets for the Department of Defense and athletes. Additionally, Kang and the research team are investigating approaches to further increase energy absorption of the material by incorporating an additional energy absorption mechanism.

The research team included: Kang, Thao (Vicky) Nguyen, professor and Marlin U. Zimmerman, Jr. Faculty Scholar at Johns Hopkins University; Christopher M. Yakacki, associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver; and Seung-Yeol Jeon, Beijun Shen, Nicholas Traugutt, Zeyu Zhu, and Lichen Fang, who are affiliated with the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute.

This research is supported in part by the Army Research Office (Grant Number W911NF-17-1-0165) and the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering Start-Up Fund.

HEMI Fellow Muyinatu ‘Bisi’ Bell elected to the AIMBE College of Fellows

Muyinatu (Bisi) Bell, John C. Malone Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, with joint appointments in Biomedical Engineering and Computer Science, HEMI Fellow, and the director of the PULSE (Photoacoustic & Ultrasonic Systems Engineering) Lab, has been elected to the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering’s College of Fellows.

Election to the AIMBE College of Fellows is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to medical and biomedical engineers. It honors those who have made outstanding contributions to engineering and medicine research, practice, or education. Bisi is being recognized “for pioneering contributions to development of ultrasonic and photoacoustic medical imaging systems, including coherence-based beamforming, photoacoustic-guided surgery, and deep learning applications.”

Her work links light, sound, and robotics to create and deploy next-generation medical imaging systems that produce clearer pictures, enabling more accurate diagnosis and reducing the risk of harm and death during surgery. She was the first to demonstrate the benefits of photoacoustic-guided surgery for neurosurgeries, gynecological surgeries, spinal fusion surgeries, liver surgeries, pancreatic surgeries, cardiac catheter-based interventions, and a multitude of teleoperated robotic surgeries. Her research breaks new ground in the fundamental understanding of technology designs, image quality requirements, and innovative light delivery systems that attach to surgical tools to transmit laser energy directly to the surgical site, generating clearer live views of a patient’s internal anatomy to help surgeons avoid injuring critical features.

Learn more about Professor Bell and her research within HEMI in this short video feature >>

2022 HEMI Seed Grant submission period now open

The Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute is pleased to announce its annual HEMI Seed Grant Program.  The goal of this program is to provide seed funding to advance the fundamental science associated with materials and structures under extreme conditions.

While all directions related to the HEMI Mission will be considered, some directions of particular interest include:

  1. Structures in extreme environments, such as blast, extreme temperatures, impact/crash, natural hazards, disasters, nuclear events
  2. Materials behavior and performance in extreme environments
  3. High-power laser interactions with matter
  4. Materials and structures applications in planetary science, space science and geophysics
  5. Hypersonics and hypersonic applications
  6. Dual-phase combustion of metal powders and the generation of nano oxide particles
  7. Materials and structures for energy applications, including energy storage
  8. AI/ML applied to Extreme Environments


All faculty and researchers at the Johns Hopkins University, as well as Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Staff, who can serve as Principal and Co-Investigators are eligible to apply. Existing HEMI fellows are encouraged to apply.


The total budget request for a faculty member or team may not exceed $25,000. The project period is up to one year. HEMI leadership anticipates funding at least one seed grant award.


HEMI Fellow Sarah Hörst receives 2022 President’s Frontier Award

In a surprise virtual presentation, JHU President Ron Daniels presented the award to Alexis Battle, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Sarah Hörst, HEMI Fellow and an associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Both researchers will receive $250,000 to pursue new lines of research, expand their laboratories, or support their lab members.

“Let me take this moment to say how dazzled we were, Alexis and Sarah, by the ambitions and scope of your research and how highly your colleagues, mentors, and students regard each of you,” said Daniels in the virtual presentation. “Having a way to honor those qualities in our faculty was a reason why we created this amazing award eight years ago. … You both join a cadre of truly remarkable people from across all our divisions whose work truly stands apart.”

The President’s Frontier Award was originally launched with a commitment of $2.5 million from trustee Louis J. Forster, A&S ’82, SAIS ’83, and is now paired with a $1 million donation from alumnus David Smilow, A&S ’84. Winners have spanned the university’s divisions and included molecular biologist Andrew Holland (2021), mathematician Emily Riehl (2020), astrophysicist Brice Ménard (2019), nephrologist and epidemiologist Deidra Crews (2018), composer Michael Hersch (2017), molecular biologist Scott Bailey (2016), and stem cell research Sharon Gerecht (2015).

The award typically recognizes one winner and one finalist each year, but Battle and Hörst were both selected this year based on the strength of their applications and the demonstrated impact and continued potential of their work.

“The two of you embody in some sense the incredible breadth of research that goes on at JHU,” said Ed Schlesinger, dean of the Whiting School of Engineering. “From the very smallest genetic materials that define what life is all about to the planets, space, the cosmos, and the search for life beyond our own world—there is something particularly poetic about the juxtaposition of both of [your work].”

Hörst, a planetary scientist, studies the composition and characteristics of aerosols in the atmospheres of early Earth and other planets. Using laboratory experiments, modeling, and remote sensing and in situ measurements of atmospheric chemistry, Hörst and her lab work to understand how small molecules transition to become aerosols and the resulting physical and chemical properties of those particles.

Sarah Hörst

Image caption:Sarah Hörst

The work has implications for assessing the habitability of other planets and for the search for life beyond our solar system. Under the right conditions, adding energy to simple mixtures of common gases can produce much more complex molecules like amino acids, which form the building blocks of living organisms.

Essential to her work is her groundbreaking approach to laboratory science. Using a custom-built Planetary Haze Research lab—a one-of-its-kind experimental lab—Hörst and her group simulate the chemical reactions that contribute to the formation of aerosols in planetary atmospheres. With this approach, she can experiment with a vast range of temperatures (90-800 degrees Kelvin, or -297-980 degrees Fahrenheit) and can use different energy sources to initiate chemical reactions across a variety of atmospheric gases and conditions. Her lab is the first in the world to be dedicated to studying photochemical haze production in exoplanet environments, and she has published research on Saturn, Saturn’s moon Titan, and early Earth.

Hörst’s work is directly relevant to important space missions, including two upcoming NASA missions: Dragonfly, which will investigate prebiotic organic chemistry and habitability on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan; and DAVINCI+, which will probe the chemical composition of the atmosphere of Venus.

“Particularly impressive is her ingenuity and creativity in developing and leading a new scientific field essentially from scratch: extrasolar planet atmosphere laboratory studies,” wrote Sabine Stanley, a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, in a letter nominating Hörst for the award. “Her work has already had major impact on the global effort to observe and characterize exoplanet atmospheres.”

She received the 2020 LAD Early Career Award from the American Astronomical Society’s Laboratory Astrophysics Division and the prestigious 2020 James B. Macelwane Medal from the American Geophysical Union, widely considered the highest honor for early career scientists in the field of geological and planetary sciences. She received a Johns Hopkins Catalyst Award in 2017 and was a co-investigator on a Discovery Award led by Maya Gomes in 2020.

Hörst received two bachelor of science degrees—one in planetary science and one in literature—from the California Institute of Technology. She received her PhD in planetary sciences from the University of Arizona, Tucson. She joined Johns Hopkins in 2014 and currently mentors three graduate students, two postdoctoral research fellows, and an associate research scientist.

Chris Celenza, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, gave Hörst particular praise for her emphasis on mentorship and collegiality.

“I often think that we are at our best in the arts and sciences when we’re reciprocally reinforcing conversations among faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates,” Celenza said during the award presentation. “I know in your lab, you’ve cultivated that very type of engagement, so I want to thank you, deeply, for all you have done for this wonderful Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and for Johns Hopkins and for the Krieger School.”

Hörst’s dedication to her lab members was evident from the moment they “Zoom bombed” the meeting, joining in on the coordinated surprise. “When I saw the names popping up on the screen, all I could think was how much more great science the people who are already working with me are going to get to do,” Hörst said through tears. “And that means the absolute world to me.”

This article is excerpted from The Hub. The original piece was published on January 26, 2022.

HEMI Fellow Sarah Hörst Featured in New York Times for Exoplanetary Research

Sarah Hörst, HEMI Fellow and associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, was recently featured in a New York Times article titled, “You Don’t Need a Spaceship to Grow ‘Weird Little’ Martian Radishes”.

The piece showcases Hörst’s research on Saturn’s moon, Titan. It also speaks to the work done in her lab regarding hypothetical exoplanets, which is helping to figuring out which potential exoplanets produce smog. This information can help scientists point telescopes at orbs they can actually observe.

Sarah Hörst of Johns Hopkins University with her lab’s planetary atmospheric simulation chamber.Credit…Justin Tsucalas

In 2018, Hörst mentored a student in the HEMI/MICA Extreme Arts Summer Project who used their art to help explain the intricacies of Titan’s atmosphere. Since that time, Hörst has grown her role and  is currently leading the program’s development.

Sarah Hörst (JHU) and Amy Wetsch (MICA) at the 2018 opening of Wetsch’s show “Lateral Distance.” The show featured pieces meant to artistically visualize and simulate Titan’s atmosphere. (image: Will Kirk, Homewood Photography)

Tamer Zaki and Jochen Mueller named HEMI Fellows

Prof. Tamer Zaki and Assistant Prof. Jochen Mueller have been appointed as two of the newest HEMI Fellows.

Zaki is currently a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is a winner of the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award, is recognized for his innovative theoretical and engineering solutions to technological and environmental challenges created when turbulence meets momentum, heat, and mass.

His work offers novel applications for hydro and aero-dynamics, turbo-machinery, heat transfer, materials processing, and medical interventions with inhaled drug delivery. His research and the work of his lab, Johns Hopkins’ Flow Science and Engineering (FSE), address a classic, complex mechanics problem: Infinitesimal disturbances can cause organized fluid motion to become chaotic.

Mueller is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Systems Engineering. His research combines additive manufacturing, functional materials, and computational design in order to create programmable matter.

His research lives at the intersection of science, application and design. Developing novel fabrication processes to enhance the structural complexity, material versatility, and throughput speed in 3D printing, Mueller’s Laboratory for Digital Fabrication and Programmable Matter combines the fabrication processes with computational tools to create or manipulate existing materials and structures in order to change their properties and improve their performance. Mueller’s hands-on background in the aerospace and automotive industries allows him to pursue research projects that have real-world applications, improving materials used in everything from prosthetic devices to lightweight structures.

HEMI Fellow Ryan Hurley to receive an AFOSR Young Investigator Program award

Ryan Hurley, HEMI Fellow and assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, has been selected to receive an Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Program Award.

These three-year awards aim to foster creative basic research in science and engineering, enhance outstanding young investigators’ early career development, and increase opportunities for young researchers to recognize the mission of the Air Force and related challenges in science and engineering.

Ryan’s project, “Effects of Material and Morphology on 3D Particle and Pore Dynamics During Rapid Compaction of Granular Materials,” will develop and use a new method for quantifying the 3D dynamics of particles during rapid compact of granular materials by combining novel algorithms with time-resolved 2D x-ray imaging techniques. The dynamics of individual particles in a granular material undergoing rapid compaction are of fundamental importance in manufacturing processes, planetary science, and defense applications. By the end of this project, Ryan hopes to be able to reconstruct the full 3D history of particle dynamics and stresses during impact events that occur over the course of several microseconds in granular materials of varied material and particle shape; results may be used to aid in validating models of planetary impact, projectile impact into soils, and ignition of energetic powders.