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  • richardmitnick 1:11 pm on August 12, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Rivard Report, SwRI   

    From Rivard Report via SwRI: “NASA Reveals San Antonio Engineered Hurricane Satellites” 

    SwRI bloc

    Southwest Research Institute

    Rivard Report

    11 August, 2016
    Mitch Hagney

    NASA’s CYGNSS mini-satellites will collect wind speed data directly over the eye of cyclones. Photo courtesy of NASA.

    The Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), in partnership with the University of Michigan and NASA, will launch an array of satellites in November that will provide the most detailed observations of the inner core of hurricanes ever collected. Thursday morning it unveiled the satellites and its deployment module to reporters at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

    Since 1990, forecasts of hurricane courses improved by about 50% because of better data sets, including those from satellites. In that time, however, scientists still struggled with predicting hurricanes’ strength. NASA’s new CYGNSS mission (Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System) will use eight satellites in a coordinated constellation to monitor and predict rapid changes in hurricane intensity.

    CYGNSS will launch in November, deployed from a Pegasus launch vehicle which drops off a high flying airplane before firing into the upper atmosphere. For a gut-wrenching five seconds, CYGNSS will drop like a stone from the aircraft before its initial boosters ignite to bring the devices to their intended orbit. From there, all eight mini-satellites will separate from the module and adjust their speed slightly to get into the proper formation.

    Dr. Chris Ruf, CYGNSS principal investigator, was asked if he regarded the device’s launch as the light at the end of a tunnel.

    “All the preparations have taken a long time, but I don’t consider this the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I consider it the beginning of the real work.”

    CYGNSS, unlike previous hurricane monitoring methods, can accurately measure wind speed from Earth’s orbit. The satellites can determine the intensity of the wind from the roughness of the water, which they gather by measuring how scattered the GPS signals that reflect off of the ocean’s surface are. The measurements are taken continuously as the CYGNSS constellation orbits the planet, and they are completely unaffected by the intense rainfall that has made hurricane measurements difficult in the past.

    The only way to get accurate wind speeds from hurricanes now is to fly a plane with special sensors on board – nicknamed Hurricane Hunters – straight into the eye of the storm. Apart from danger and expense, planes aren’t optimal because they’re rarely deployed to the Pacific Ocean, where cyclones and typhoons crash against Australia and Asia. CYGNSS will take the same amount of constant data globally, improving storm predictions and potentially saving lives all over the world.

    Each of the eight satellites weighs around 65 pounds and operates on less than 60 watts, which is comparable to a dim light bulb. The program cost around $150 million and will operate between two and six years. Data will be gathered every hour of every day.

    The satellites were designed and built in San Antonio at the Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering division. The mission is hardly the first NASA project that SwRI has taken on. Its hardware on Juno is currently orbiting Jupiter and has already yielded amazing scientific discoveries like the first evidence of heat created from acoustic waves and canyons filled with liquid methane on Titan.


    SwRI also worked on New Horizons, which passed Pluto last year and provided the first detailed photographs of the former planet, revealing flowing pools of liquid nitrogen and a thin blue atmosphere.

    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft
    NASA/New Horizons spacecraft

    The institute even created the tempur aircraft brake pads that evolved into Tempur-Pedic mattresses.

    The Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) will help improve hurricane track, intensity, and storm surge forecasts. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

    Space Science and Engineering is just one of ten divisions at the institute. It also work on fuels, lubricants, ballistics and explosives, autonomous vehicles, and chemical engineering, among other subjects. In total, it employs more than 1700 San Antonians with an additional 70 workers based in Boulder, Colo. The facility in Boulder will function as operational headquarters for the implementation of the CYGNSS mission.

    Every piece of data from every NASA Earth Science mission is offered free of charge to anyone who seeks it, and the hurricane data from CYGNSS will be no exception.

    “From the viewpoint of science, the more people you have looking at it, the better we understand the planet we’re jointly living in,” said Christine Bonniksen, NASA’s Earth Sciences division program director.

    That means the city of Houston will become safer just as impoverished towns in the Philippines will.

    “CYGNSS is the first earth science program in orbit for us,” she said. “This is an amazing mission that truly affects everyone here on Earth.”

    See the full article here .

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    SwRI Campus

    Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is an independent, nonprofit applied research and development organization. The staff of nearly 2,800 specializes in the creation and transfer of technology in engineering and the physical sciences. SwRI’s technical divisions offer a wide range of technical expertise and services in such areas as engine design and development, emissions certification testing, fuels and lubricants evaluation, chemistry, space science, nondestructive evaluation, automation, mechanical engineering, electronics, and more.

  • richardmitnick 5:24 pm on August 3, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Fleet of robots could hunt for life on icy moon Enceladus, , SwRI   

    From New Scientist: “Fleet of robots could hunt for life on icy moon Enceladus” 


    New Scientist

    2 August 2016
    Rebecca Boyle

    Cassini flew through icy plumes from Enceladus. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

    Delicate space nets. Probes landing with the force of a bomb. Ice-burrowing tunnellers. These are a few of the robots poised to grab the baton from NASA’s Cassini orbiter in the search for alien life on Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus.

    As Cassini prepares for a death dive into Saturn next year, planetary scientists met in Boulder, Colorado, last week to discuss its possible successors.

    Enceladus has a massive global ocean under its frozen surface, and cracks in its exterior spew plumes of water into space. The plumes continually add icy material to one of Saturn’s rings, and offer a tantalising taste of the water within. But Cassini can’t test them. Its instruments aren’t detailed enough to analyse the water, because when it was built, no one knew the plumes were there.

    “That is a very fine example of why it’s so hard to design space missions,” says Alexis Bouquet, a PhD student at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. “By definition, we are going to an object that we don’t know much about. So we always get surprises.”

    As Cassini flew through Enceladus’s plumes a handful of times in the past 11 years, its instruments were flooded with hydrogen molecules, which are a possible smoking gun for hydrothermal vents in the oceans. If confirmed, those vents would have major implications for life beneath the ice.

    Bugs on a windshield

    But it’s unclear whether the hydrogen molecules came from Enceladus or from Cassini itself. That’s because when ice grains in the plumes smack into Cassini’s instruments they break apart, like insects on a car windshield. “They are smashing so fast that they can actually chip the windshield and form tiny craters,” says Bouquet. This releases titanium into Cassini’s instruments, which steals oxygen from the icy water to release hydrogen molecules.

    At the meeting in Boulder, Bouquet presented computer simulations he is using to figure out how much water is really there and how much is the instrument’s confusion – although he hasn’t come to a conclusion yet.

    To improve matters, a future Enceladus plume sampler could use gold sensors, which wouldn’t react in the same way as the titanium ones. Or it could use a soft, spongy net, similar to the capture devices developed for the Stardust mission, which grabbed a few specks of cosmic dust from interstellar space in 2006.

    A net about 12 square centimetres in area would be big enough to capture a few micrograms of plume spray, says Richard Mathies, a chemist at the University of California at Berkeley. While that’s not a lot, the proposed lab-on-a-chip Enceladus Organic Analyzer — new details of which Mathies’s collaborators presented in Boulder — can sniff out one organic molecule in a billion others, Mathies says.

    Subsurface sea

    Landers and drills would be able to get an even closer look at the subsurface sea. But to enter they would have to crash with immense force or melt the ice, disturbing anything living there even as they tried to detect it. Tests on the EOA’s instruments suggest it could still do its job after an impact with an energy 50,000 times greater than Earth’s gravitational pull, which is a greater g-force than that felt by an artillery shell.

    At the meeting, Amanda Stockton at the Georgia Institute of Technology presented design concepts with optical instruments in the centre of a lander, which would make them more likely to survive impact.

    One other robot concept could break more than just ice grains. A proposed Enceladus Explorer mission could set up a robotic base station near the moon’s southern pole, where the plumes are thought to originate. A robot drill called the IceMole would both melt ice and ram through it, reaching down about 100 to 200 metres to the ocean below the surface.

    Researchers at Aachen University of Applied Sciences in Germany told the meeting of plans to test a smaller model of the probe in a vacuum chamber under simulated space conditions.

    Even as they plan future missions, planetary scientists will continue analysing data from Cassini long after it makes its final measurements. Cassini has not only fulfilled its mission, but opened the door to an armada of probes destined for oceans in the outer solar system, says Angela Stickle at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

    “Cassini is fantastic and marvellous,” she says. “But, as with any good spacecraft mission, it leaves us with more questions than answers. Having more missions to these planets will only help answer our questions.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 2:38 pm on August 2, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Gemini Tracks Collapse of Io's Atmosphere During Frigid Eclipses, SwRI, Texas Echelon Cross Echelle Spectrograph (TEXES)   

    From Gemini: “Gemini Tracks Collapse of Io’s Atmosphere During Frigid Eclipses” 


    Gemini Observatory
    Gemini Observatory

    August 1, 2016
    No writer credit found

    Artist’s concept of the atmospheric collapse of Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io, which is eclipsed by Jupiter for two hours of each day (1.7 Earth days). The resulting temperature drop freezes sulfur dioxide gas, causing the atmosphere to “deflate,” as seen in the shadowed area on the left. Credits: SwRI/Andrew Blanchard.

    Gemini observations show that the thin atmosphere of Jupiter’s moon Io undergoes dramatic changes during frequent eclipses with the giant planet. The following press release, issued by the Southwest Research Institute, explains how the dramatic changes in temperature cause the moon’s atmosphere to collapse.

    SwRI Space Scientists Observe Io’s Atmospheric Collapse During Eclipse

    A Southwest Research Institute-led team has documented atmospheric changes on Io, Jupiter’s volcanically active satellite, as the giant planet casts its shadow over the moon’s surface during daily eclipses.

    A study led by SwRI’s Constantine Tsang concluded that Io’s thin atmosphere, which consists primarily of sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas emitted from volcanoes, collapses as the SO2 freezes onto the surface as ice when Io is shaded by Jupiter. When the moon moves out of eclipse and ice warms, the atmosphere reforms through sublimation, where ice converts directly to gas.

    “This research is the first time scientists have observed this phenomenon directly, improving our understanding of this geologically active moon,” said Tsang, a senior research scientist in SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division.

    The findings were published in a study titled The Collapse of Io’s Primary Atmosphere in Jupiter Eclipse in the Journal of Geophysical Research. The team used the eight-meter Gemini North telescope in Hawai’i with the Texas Echelon Cross Echelle Spectrograph (TEXES) for this research.

    Data showed that Io’s atmosphere begins to “deflate” when the temperatures drop from -235 degrees Fahrenheit in sunlight to -270 degrees Fahrenheit during eclipse. Eclipse occurs 2 hours of every Io day (1.7 Earth days). In full eclipse, the atmosphere effectively collapses as most of the SO2 gas settles as frost on the moon’s surface. The atmosphere redevelops as the surface warms once the moon returns to full sunlight.

    “This confirms that Io’s atmosphere is in a constant state of collapse and repair, and shows that a large fraction of the atmosphere is supported by sublimation of SO2 ice,” said John Spencer, an SwRI scientist who also participated in the study. “Though Io’s hyperactive volcanoes are the ultimate source of the SO2, sunlight controls the atmospheric pressure on a daily basis by controlling the temperature of the ice on the surface. We’ve long suspected this, but can finally watch it happen.”

    Prior to the study, no direct observations of Io’s atmosphere in eclipse had been possible because Io’s atmosphere is difficult to observe in the darkness of Jupiter’s shadow. This breakthrough was possible because TEXES measures the atmosphere using heat radiation, not sunlight, and the giant Gemini telescope can sense the faint heat signature of Io’s collapsing atmosphere.

    Tsang and Spencer’s observations occurred over two nights in November 2013, when Io was more than 420 million miles from Earth. On both occasions, Io was observed moving in and out of Jupiter’s shadow, for a period about 40 minutes before and after eclipse.

    Io is the most volcanically active object in the solar system. Tidal heating, the result of Io’s gravitational interaction with Jupiter, drives the moon’s volcanic activity. Io’s volcanoes emit umbrella-like plumes of SO2 gas extending up to 300 miles above the moon’s surface and produce extensive basaltic lava fields that can flow for hundreds of miles.

    This study is also timely given that NASA’s Juno spacecraft entered Jupiter orbit on July 4th. “Io spews out gases that eventually fill the Jupiter system, ultimately seeding some of the auroral features seen at Jupiter’s poles,” Tsang said. “Understanding how these emissions from Io are controlled will help paint a better picture of the Jupiter system.”

    For more information, contact Robert Crowe, (210) 522-4630, Communications Department, Southwest Research Institute, PO Drawer 28510, San Antonio, TX 78228-0510.

    See the full article here .

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    Gemini North
    Gemini North, Hawai’i

    Gemini South
    Gemini South, Chile
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    Gemini’s mission is to advance our knowledge of the Universe by providing the international Gemini Community with forefront access to the entire sky.

    The Gemini Observatory is an international collaboration with two identical 8-meter telescopes. The Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope is located on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i (Gemini North) and the other telescope on Cerro Pachón in central Chile (Gemini South); together the twin telescopes provide full coverage over both hemispheres of the sky. The telescopes incorporate technologies that allow large, relatively thin mirrors, under active control, to collect and focus both visible and infrared radiation from space.

    The Gemini Observatory provides the astronomical communities in six partner countries with state-of-the-art astronomical facilities that allocate observing time in proportion to each country’s contribution. In addition to financial support, each country also contributes significant scientific and technical resources. The national research agencies that form the Gemini partnership include: the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the Canadian National Research Council (NRC), the Chilean Comisión Nacional de Investigación Cientifica y Tecnológica (CONICYT), the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Argentinean Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Productiva, and the Brazilian Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação. The observatory is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. The NSF also serves as the executive agency for the international partnership.

  • richardmitnick 9:04 am on June 28, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , SwRI, SwRI’s Parker discovers moon over Makemake in the Kuiper Belt   

    From SwRI: “SwRI’s Parker discovers moon over Makemake in the Kuiper Belt” 

    SwRI bloc

    Southwest Research Institute

    June 27, 2016
    Deb Schmid
    (210) 522-2254

    A SwRI-led team analyzed data from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to discover a small, dark moon around the dwarf planet Makemake. The image shows different views of the Makemake system taken two days apart. The moon over Makemake is faint but visible on the left, but completely lost in the glare of the parent dwarf on the right.

    Southwest Research Institute-led team has discovered an elusive, dark moon orbiting Makemake, one of the “big four” dwarf planets populating the Kuiper Belt region at the edge of our solar system. The findings are detailed in the paper Discovery of a Makemakean Moon, published in the June 27 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

    “Makemake’s moon proves that there are still wild things waiting to be discovered, even in places people have already looked,” said Dr. Alex Parker, lead author of the paper and the SwRI astronomer credited with discovering the satellite. Parker spotted a faint point of light close to the dwarf planet using data from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. “Makemake’s moon — nicknamed MK2 — is very dark, 1,300 times fainter than the dwarf planet.”

    A nearly edge-on orbital configuration helped it evade detection, placing it deep within the glare of the icy dwarf during a substantial fraction of its orbit. Makemake is one of the largest and brightest known Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), second only to Pluto. The moon is likely less than 100 miles wide while its parent dwarf planet is about 870 miles across. Discovered in 2005, Makemake is shaped like football and sheathed in frozen methane.

    “With a moon, we can calculate Makemake’s mass and density,” Parker said. “We can contrast the orbits and properties of the parent dwarf and its moon, to understand the origin and history of the system. We can compare Makemake and its moon to other systems, and broaden our understanding of the processes that shaped the evolution of our solar system.”

    With the discovery of MK2, all four of the currently designated dwarf planets are known to host one or more satellites. The fact that Makemake’s satellite went unseen despite previous searches suggests that other large KBOs may host hidden moons.

    Prior to this discovery, the lack of a satellite for Makemake suggested that it had escaped a past giant impact. Now, scientists will be looking at its density to determine if it was formed by a giant collision or if it was grabbed by the parent dwarf’s gravity. The apparent ubiquity of moons orbiting KBO dwarf planets supports the idea that giant collisions are a near-universal fixture in the histories of these distant worlds.

    The authors of this paper were supported by a grant from Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which conducts Hubble Space Telescope operations. The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. in Washington, D.C., operates STScI for NASA. The Hubble telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and European Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope.

    See the full article here .

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    SwRI Campus

    Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is an independent, nonprofit applied research and development organization. The staff of nearly 2,800 specializes in the creation and transfer of technology in engineering and the physical sciences. SwRI’s technical divisions offer a wide range of technical expertise and services in such areas as engine design and development, emissions certification testing, fuels and lubricants evaluation, chemistry, space science, nondestructive evaluation, automation, mechanical engineering, electronics, and more.

  • richardmitnick 9:20 pm on February 26, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , SwRI   

    From NASA Goddard: “NASA’s IBEX Observations Pin Down Interstellar Magnetic Field” 

    NASA Goddard Banner
    NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

    Feb. 26, 2016
    Sarah Frazier
    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

    Immediately after its 2008 launch, NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer, or IBEX, spotted a curiosity in a thin slice of space: More particles streamed in through a long, skinny swath in the sky than anywhere else.


    The origin of the so-called IBEX ribbon was unknown – but its very existence opened doors to observing what lies outside our solar system, the way drops of rain on a window tell you more about the weather outside.

    Now, a new study uses IBEX data and simulations of the interstellar boundary – which lies at the very edge of the giant magnetic bubble surrounding our solar system called the heliosphere – to better describe space in our galactic neighborhood. The paper, published Feb. 8, 2016, in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, precisely determines the strength and direction of the magnetic field outside the heliosphere. Such information gives us a peek into the magnetic forces that dominate the galaxy beyond, teaching us more about our home in space.

    Inner heliosheath
    (Artist concept) Far beyond the orbit of Neptune, the solar wind and the interstellar medium interact to create a region known as the inner heliosheath, bounded on the inside by the termination shock, and on the outside by the heliopause. Credits: NASA/IBEX/Adler Planetarium

    The new paper is based on one particular theory of the origin of the IBEX ribbon, in which the particles streaming in from the ribbon are actually solar material reflected back at us after a long journey to the edges of the sun’s magnetic boundaries. A giant bubble, known as the heliosphere, exists around the sun and is filled with what’s called solar wind, the sun’s constant outflow of ionized gas, known as plasma. When these particles reach the edges of the heliosphere, their motion becomes more complicated.

    “The theory says that some solar wind protons are sent flying back towards the sun as neutral atoms after a complex series of charge exchanges, creating the IBEX ribbon,” said Eric Zirnstein, a space scientist at the Southwest Research Institute [SwRI] in San Antonio, Texas, and lead author on the study. “Simulations and IBEX observations pinpoint this process – which takes anywhere from three to six years on average – as the most likely origin of the IBEX ribbon.”

    Outside the heliosphere lies the interstellar medium, with plasma that has different speed, density, and temperature than solar wind plasma, as well as neutral gases. These materials interact at the heliosphere’s edge to create a region known as the inner heliosheath, bounded on the inside by the termination shock – which is more than twice as far from us as the orbit of Pluto – and on the outside by the heliopause, the boundary between the solar wind and the comparatively dense interstellar medium.

    Some solar wind protons that flow out from the sun to this boundary region will gain an electron, making them neutral and allowing them to cross the heliopause. Once in the interstellar medium, they can lose that electron again, making them gyrate around the interstellar magnetic field. If those particles pick up another electron at the right place and time, they can be fired back into the heliosphere, travel all the way back toward Earth, and collide with IBEX’s detector. The particles carry information about all that interaction with the interstellar magnetic field, and as they hit the detector they can give us unprecedented insight into the characteristics of that region of space.

    “Only Voyager 1 has ever made direct observations of the interstellar magnetic field, and those are close to the heliopause, where it’s distorted,” said Zirnstein.

    NASA Voyager 1
    Voyager 1

    “But this analysis provides a nice determination of its strength and direction farther out.”

    The directions of different ribbon particles shooting back toward Earth are determined by the characteristics of the interstellar magnetic field. For instance, simulations show that the most energetic particles come from a different region of space than the least energetic particles, which gives clues as to how the interstellar magnetic field interacts with the heliosphere.

    For the recent study, such observations were used to seed simulations of the ribbon’s origin. Not only do these simulations correctly predict the locations of neutral ribbon particles at different energies, but the deduced interstellar magnetic field agrees with Voyager 1 measurements, the deflection of interstellar neutral gases, and observations of distant polarized starlight.

    However, some early simulations of the interstellar magnetic field don’t quite line up. Those pre-IBEX estimates were based largely on two data points – the distances at which Voyagers 1 and 2 crossed the termination shock.

    “Voyager 1 crossed the termination shock at 94 astronomical units, or AU, from the sun, and Voyager 2 at 84 AU,” said Zirnstein. One AU is equal to about 93 million miles, the average distance between Earth and the sun. “That difference of almost 930 million miles was mostly explained by a strong, very tilted interstellar magnetic field pushing on the heliosphere.”

    But that difference may be accounted for by considering a stronger influence from the solar cycle, which can lead to changes in the strength of the solar wind and thus change the distance to the termination shock in the directions of Voyager 1 and 2. The two Voyager spacecraft made their measurements almost three years apart, giving plenty of time for the variable solar wind to change the distance of the termination shock.

    “Scientists in the field are developing more sophisticated models of the time-dependent solar wind,” said Zirnstein.

    The simulations generally jibe well with the Voyager data.

    Ibex ribbon
    The IBEX ribbon is a relatively narrow strip of particles flying in towards the sun from outside the heliosphere. A new study corroborates the idea that particles from outside the heliosphere that form the IBEX ribbon actually originate at the sun – and reveals information about the distant interstellar magnetic field. Credits: SwRI

    “The new findings can be used to better understand how our space environment interacts with the interstellar environment beyond the heliopause,” said Eric Christian, IBEX program scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who was not involved in this study. “In turn, understanding that interaction could help explain the mystery of what causes the IBEX ribbon once and for all.”

    The Southwest Research Institute leads IBEX with teams of national and international partners. NASA Goddard manages the Explorers Program for the agency’s Heliophysics Division within the Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

    Related Link

    IBEX mission website
    Article: The Astrophysical Journal LettersLocal Interstellar Magnetic Field Determined From the Interstellar Boundary Explorer Ribbon

    See the full article here.

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    NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is home to the nation’s largest organization of combined scientists, engineers and technologists that build spacecraft, instruments and new technology to study the Earth, the sun, our solar system, and the universe.

    Named for American rocketry pioneer Dr. Robert H. Goddard, the center was established in 1959 as NASA’s first space flight complex. Goddard and its several facilities are critical in carrying out NASA’s missions of space exploration and scientific discovery.

    NASA Goddard campus
    NASA/Goddard Campus

    NASA image

  • richardmitnick 11:27 am on September 9, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , SwRI   

    From AAS NOVA: “Explaining the Kuiper Belt with a Jumping Planet” 


    Amercan Astronomical Society

    9 September 2015
    Susanna Kohler

    Image approximation of Kuiper Belt

    A feature of the Kuiper Belt known as the “kernel” has yet to be adequately explained by solar system formation models. In a recent study, a theorist at the Southwest Research Institute proposes a new explanation for how Neptune arrived at its current orbit — and how this planet’s migration in the early years of the solar system might have created the kernel.

    Orbital Jump

    The kernel is a concentration of orbits within the Kuiper Belt that all have semimajor axes of roughly a ≈ 44 AU, low eccentricities, and low inclinations. How this collection of objects formed — and why they exist where they do — is difficult to explain with current models, however. Kernel objects aren’t in resonance with any of the larger bodies, so why are they concentrated at that specific distance? In this study, David Nesvorný proposes that the kernel resulted from Neptune’s outward migration through the solar system.

    In the currently favored model of our solar system’s formation, the outermost gas giant planets formed closer to the Sun and then migrated out to their current locations. Nesvorný ran a series of simulations of this migration to test the theory that a discontinuity in Neptune’s movement outward — i.e., a sudden jump in the planet’s orbital distance — could explain the presence of the Kuiper Belt’s kernel.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 3:26 pm on August 19, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , SwRI   

    From SwRI: “SwRI scientists think “planetary pebbles” were the building blocks for the largest planets” 

    SwRI bloc

    Southwest Research Institute

    August 19, 2015
    Deb Schmid, (210) 522-2254

    This artist’s concept of a young star system shows gas giants forming first, while the gas nebula is present. Southwest Research Institute scientists used computer simulations to nail down how Jupiter and Saturn evolved in our own solar system. These new calculations show that the cores of gas giants likely formed by gradually accumulating a population of planetary pebbles – icy objects about a foot in diameter.

    Researchers at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and Queen’s University in Canada have unraveled the mystery of how Jupiter and Saturn likely formed. This discovery, which changes our view of how all planets might have formed, will be published in the Aug. 20 issue of Nature.

    Ironically, the largest planets in the solar system likely formed first. Jupiter and Saturn, which are mostly hydrogen and helium, presumably accumulated their gasses before the solar nebula dispersed. Observations of young star systems show that the gas disks that form planets usually have lifetimes of only 1 to 10 million years, which means the gas giant planets in our solar system probably formed within this time frame. In contrast, the Earth probably took at least 30 million years to form, and may have taken as long as 100 million years. So how could Jupiter and Saturn have formed so quickly?

    The most widely accepted theory for gas giant formation is the so-called core accretion model. In this model, a planet-sized core of ice and rock forms first. Then, an inflow of interstellar gas and dust attaches itself to the growing planet. However, this model has an Achilles heel; specifically, the very first step in the process. To accumulate a massive atmosphere requires a solid core roughly 10 times the mass of Earth. Yet these large objects, which are akin to Uranus and Neptune, had to have formed in only a few million years.

    In the standard model of planet formation, rocky cores grow as similarly sized objects accumulate and assimilate through a process called accretion. Rocks incorporate other rocks, creating mountains; then mountains merge with other mountains, leading to city-sized objects, and so on. However, this model is unable to produce planetary cores large enough, in a short enough period of time, to explain Saturn and Jupiter.

    “The timescale problem has been sticking in our throats for some time,” said Dr. Hal Levison, an Institute scientist in the SwRI Planetary Science Directorate and lead author of the paper. Titled Growing the Gas Giant Planets by the Gradual Accumulation of Pebbles, the paper is co-authored by SwRI Research Scientist Dr. Katherine Kretke and Dr. Martin Duncan, a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

    “It wasn’t clear how objects like Jupiter and Saturn could exist at all,” continued Levison. New calculations by the team show that the cores of Jupiter and Saturn could form well within the 10-million-year time frame if they grew by gradually accumulating a population of planetary pebbles – icy objects about a foot in diameter. Recent research has shown that gas can play a vital role in increasing the efficiency of accretion. So pebbles entering orbit can spiral onto the protoplanet and assimilate, assisted by a gaseous headwind.

    In their article, Levison, Kretke, and Duncan show that pebble accretion can produce the observed structure of the solar system as long as the pebbles formed slowly enough that the growing planets have time to gravitationally interact with one another.

    “If the pebbles form too quickly, pebble accretion would lead to the formation of hundreds of icy Earths,” said Kretke. “The growing cores need some time to fling their competitors away from the pebbles, effectively starving them. This is why only a couple of gas giants formed.”

    “As far as I know, this is the first model to reproduce the structure of the outer solar system, with two gas giants, two ice giants (Uranus and Neptune), and a pristine Kuiper belt,” says Levison.

    “After many years of performing computer simulations of the standard model without success, it is a relief to find a new model that is so successful,” adds Duncan.

    Levison is the principal investigator of the research, funded through a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Grant.

    Editors: An image is available at http://www.swri.org/press/2015/planetary-pebbles-building-blocks-large-planets.htm.

    See the full article here.

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    SwRI Campus

    Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is an independent, nonprofit applied research and development organization. The staff of nearly 2,800 specializes in the creation and transfer of technology in engineering and the physical sciences. SwRI’s technical divisions offer a wide range of technical expertise and services in such areas as engine design and development, emissions certification testing, fuels and lubricants evaluation, chemistry, space science, nondestructive evaluation, automation, mechanical engineering, electronics, and more.

  • richardmitnick 1:40 pm on May 4, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , SwRI   

    From SwRI via KSAT: “Inst­ruments on Pluto space probe built at Southwest Research Institute” 

    SwRI bloc

    Southwest Research Institute


    In just a few weeks, a tiny space probe launched in 2006 will finally reach it’s destination — Pluto.

    The New Horizons spacecraft will be the first to fly by the dwarf planet located in the outskirts of our solar system.

    NASA New Horizons spacecraft
    New Horizons

    In mid-July, the probe will give scientists their best view of the icy object and it’s moon Charon, and will collect data that could help them understand how planets form.

    A group of scientists at San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute are playing a big role in the historic mission.

    “It was launched in 2006, flew by Jupiter in 2007 to get a little boost of speed and now it’s almost at Pluto, so it’s been traveling pretty fast,” said New Horizons mission co-investigator Randy Gladstone. “It has been a long haul and it’s not for people who want instant gratification.”

    When the New Horizons probe was launched nine years ago, Pluto was still a planet. Before the end of its first year in space, the ninth planet was demoted to dwarf status, but don’t think for a second that has diminished the excitement scientists at SwRI are feeling right now.

    “This is an exciting one because it’s going somewhere we haven’t looked at before very closely, and that it’s taken so long to get there,” Gladstone said. “It is the last object of this size in our solar system that’s going to be looked at for the first time up close. Pictures of Pluto from the Hubble Space Telescope are just fuzzy little blobs, so we’re going to turn those fuzzy blobs into real worlds that have never been seen before.”

    The probe is expected to make its closest approach to Pluto on July 14 and then continue on, exploring Pluto’s galactic neighborhood known as the Kuiper Belt.

    “Like most reconnaissance missions, this one is just flying by Pluto. It’s not going to stop and go into orbit, it’s just going to fly by and take as much data as it can,” Gladstone said. “Then it’s going to go out into the Kuiper Belt and try to look at a Kuiper Belt object, which are another class of interesting objects in the solar system, much smaller, and then it just keeps on going out into the galaxy.”

    The probe is the fastest spacecraft ever launched from Earth and is no larger than a grand piano, but its mission could produce some big results.

    Two instruments on board New Horizons that will help unlock Pluto’s secrets were designed, tested and built at SwRI in San Antonio.

    New Horizons instrumentation

    One of those instruments is called SWAP and it’s job is to measure the solar winds at Pluto.

    “That tells us about how fast Pluto’s atmosphere is escaping, how it interacts with the solar wind tells you how much atmosphere is coming off Pluto,” Gladstone said.

    Principle scientist Michael Davis was involved in the design and building of the second San Antonio built instrument known as ALICE, an ultraviolet spectrometer.

    “It watches ultraviolet photons around Pluto that are caused by the sun’s interaction with Pluto and it also looks at things like the sun as they set behind Pluto,” Davis said. “So we will learn a lot about the atmosphere of Pluto by looking with ALICE.”

    Davis said his main role is making sure all the instruments are working properly and helping to analyze the data as it comes in. It’s a big responsibility but he’s confident everything will work as planned.

    “We’ve had a bunch of tests along the way to make sure everything works, so I’m not too worried about it not working or something going wrong, but it will be interesting to see what comes back from it because no one’s ever seen it before,” Davis said. “This is the first time anyone goes to Pluto and it’s great to be a part of it.”

    Just like everything else with the mission, scientists will have to be patient for the data to make it back to Earth.

    “We’re a long way out there with a tiny spacecraft,” Gladstone said. “It takes about a year to get all that data back so eventually it will all come back and we’ll have plenty to play with for the next 10 years.”

    The probe will keep traveling past Pluto and out of the solar system, only the fifth spacecraft to leave the solar system, perhaps solving more mysteries along the way.

    “There’s this whole new area out there called the outer solar system where the Kuiper Belt is and Pluto is a member of the Kuiper Belt, but there’s thousands of them out there, and there’s many, many objects the size of Pluto out there that are very interesting looking and they’re a key component of the solar system,” Gladstone said. “The way they were distributed helped form the entire solar system.”

    One thing the New Horizon’s mission will not do is end the debate over whether Pluto should still be considered a planet.

    “I don’t see that debate going away any time soon, there’s so many opinions on it,” Galdstone said. “It’s an interesting discussion, but it’s never going to end I don’t think.”

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    SwRI Campus

    Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is an independent, nonprofit applied research and development organization. The staff of nearly 2,800 specializes in the creation and transfer of technology in engineering and the physical sciences. SwRI’s technical divisions offer a wide range of technical expertise and services in such areas as engine design and development, emissions certification testing, fuels and lubricants evaluation, chemistry, space science, nondestructive evaluation, automation, mechanical engineering, electronics, and more.

  • richardmitnick 9:22 pm on April 17, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , SwRI   

    From SwRI: “SwRI-led team studies meteorites from asteroids to date Moon-forming impact” 

    SwRI bloc

    Southwest Research Institute

    April 16, 2015
    No Writer Credit

    A NASA-funded research team led by Dr. Bill Bottke of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) independently estimated the Moon’s age as slightly less than 4.5 billion years by analyzing impact-heated shock signatures found in stony meteorites originating from the Main Asteroid Belt. Their work will appear in the April 2015 issue of the journal Science.

    “This research is helping to refine our time scales for ‘what happened when’ on other worlds in the solar system,” said Bottke, of the Institute for the Science of Exploration Targets (ISET). ISET is a founding member of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) and is based in SwRI’s Boulder, Colo. office.

    The Moon-forming giant impact, which took place between a large protoplanet and the proto-Earth, was the inner Solar System’s biggest and most recent known collision. Its timing, however, is still uncertain. Ages of the most ancient lunar samples returned by the Apollo astronauts are still being debated.


    Images Courtesy of Southwest Research Institute

    Two frames that show a mapping of final material states of the Moon-forming impact event. Here it is assumed that a Mars-sized protoplanet, defined as having 13% of an Earth-mass, struck the proto-Earth at a 45 degree angle near the mutual escape velocity of both worlds. The “red” particles, comprising 0.3% of an Earth-mass, were found to escape the Earth-Moon system. Some of this debris may eventually go on to strike other solar system bodies like large main belt asteroids. “Yellow–green” particles go into the disk that makes the Moon. “Blue” particles were accreted by the proto-Earth.

    The first frame shows the mapping onto the pre-impact states of the Moon-forming impactor and proto-Earth. The second frame shows the mapping nearly 20 minutes into the impact event. The details of this simulation can be found in Canup, R. (2004, Simulations of a late lunar-forming impact, Icarus 168, 433–456).

    Image Courtesy of Vishnu Reddy, Planetary Science Institute

    A meteorite fragment found after a 17–20 meter asteroid disrupted in the atmosphere near Chelyabinsk, Russia on Feb. 15, 2013. The blast wave produced by this event not only caused damage over a wide area but also created a strewn field of stony meteorites like this one. The meteorite is an ordinary chondrite (type LL5). It shows a beautiful contact between impact melt (dark material at top of image) and chondritic host (light material at bottom of image). Chondrules (circular features) are visible in the chondritic host at the bottom and right-hand side of the image. Portions of the chondrite were broken or otherwise separated and have migrated into the impact melt. The impact melt is estimated to be 4452±21 (Popova et al. 2013) and 4456±18 million years old (Lapen et al. 2014). These ages match the ~4470 million year old age of the Moon predicted by our model. We argue these impact melts were likely created when high velocity debris from the Moon-forming impact hit the parent asteroid of the Chelyabinsk bolide and heated near-surface material. (Image credit: Vishnu Reddy, Planetary Science Institute).

    The team used numerical simulations to show that the giant impact likely created a disk near Earth that eventually coalesced to form the Moon, while ejecting huge amounts of debris completely out of the Earth-Moon system. The fate of that material has been a mystery. However, it is plausible that some of it would have blasted other ancient inner-solar-system worlds such as asteroids, leaving behind telltale signs of impact-heating shock on their surfaces. Subsequent, less violent collisions between asteroids have since ejected some shocked remnants back to Earth in the form of fist-sized meteorites.

    By determining the age of the shock signatures on those meteorites, scientists were able to infer that their origin likely corresponds to the time of the giant impact, and therefore to the age of the Moon.

    The SSERVI research indicates that material accelerated by the giant impact struck Main Belt asteroids at much higher velocities than typical Main Belt collisions. The craters left behind by this bombardment contained an abundance of shocked and melted material with formation ages that provide a characteristic of the ancient giant impact event.

    Evidence that the giant impact produced a large number of kilometer-sized fragments can be inferred from laboratory and numerical impact experiments, the ancient lunar impact record itself, and the numbers and sizes of fragments produced by major Main Belt asteroid collisions.

    Once the team concluded that pieces of the Moon-forming impact hit Main Belt asteroids and made ancient impact age signatures in meteorites, they set out to deduce both the timing and the relative magnitude of the bombardment. By modeling their evolution over time, and fitting the results to ancient impact heating signatures in stony meteorites, the team was able to infer the Moon formed about 4.47 billion years ago, in agreement with many previous estimates.

    These impact signatures also provide insights into the last stages of planet formation in the inner solar system. For example, the team is exploring how they can be used to place new constraints on how many planet formation “leftovers,” many in the form of asteroid-like bodies, still existed in the inner solar system in the aftermath of planet formation. “It is even possible,” Bottke said, “that tiny remnants of the Moon-forming impactor or proto-Earth might still be found within meteorites that show signs of shock heating by giant impact debris. This would allow scientists to explore for the first time the unknown primordial nature of our home world.”

    SwRI scientists Dr. Simone Marchi and Dr. Harold (Hal) Levison also contributed to this work, as well as a team of researchers from the University of Arizona, University of Hawaii, and University of Western Ontario. This research was supported in part by SSERVI at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. SSERVI is funded by the Science Mission Directorate and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters to enable cross-team and interdisciplinary research that pushes forward the boundaries of science and exploration.

    For more information about SSERVI, visit http://sservi.nasa.gov.

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    SwRI Campus

    Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is an independent, nonprofit applied research and development organization. The staff of nearly 2,800 specializes in the creation and transfer of technology in engineering and the physical sciences. SwRI’s technical divisions offer a wide range of technical expertise and services in such areas as engine design and development, emissions certification testing, fuels and lubricants evaluation, chemistry, space science, nondestructive evaluation, automation, mechanical engineering, electronics, and more.

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