Space Research

Since 1977, the Southwest Research Institute space research program has played a key role in NASA space physics and planetary missions. With expertise in planetary and space science, instrument design and fabrication, and data systems development, SwRI contributes significantly to understanding the solar system and to the ability to study solar system bodies, in situ and remotely.

Using state-of-the-art computer modeling and data analysis techniques, SwRI investigates solar system and astrophysical phenomena from theoretical and observational standpoints. Historically, space research at SwRI has emphasized magnetospheric and auroral physics, centering on the Earth's plasma environment and its response to the solar wind. In recent years, the program has expanded to include studies of the upper atmospheres and magnetospheres of Jupiter and Saturn, along with other topics in planetary science, such as Mercury's exosphere, comets, the Pluto-Charon system, and the Kuiper Belt.


This false-color image of sodium emissions from Mercury, obtained at the National Solar Observatory, shows Mercury's sodium exosphere, with enhanced emissions (in red) from the south pole. SwRI is modeling the physical processes that create and maintain Mercury's tenuous exosphere.


Complementing these activities is SwRI's space instrumentation program. SwRI-developed plasma instruments have flown on sounding rockets and satellites, including the two Dynamics Explorer spacecraft and the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, and will be flown on the Polar spacecraft and the Cassini Saturn Orbiter. New instruments under development include a novel energy-mass spectrograph for energetic neutral atom imaging of magnetospheric plasmas, a Miniature Electrostatic Dual Spherical Analyzer for concurrent ion and electron measurements of auroral plasmas, a Miniaturized Optimized Smart Sensor (MOSS) for in situ plasma measurements, and the ultraviolet spectrograph component for the Highly Integrated Pluto Payload System (HIPPS). With their innovative designs, low resource requirements, and high performance, MOSS and HIPPS embody NASA's philosophy for future space missions.


SwRI has developed a lightweight, low-cost, and low-power ultraviolet spectrograph (UVS) as part of an integrated imaging payload for a proposed NASA mission to the Pluto/Charon system. The Institute also leads a multi-institutional effort to develop the Highly Integrated Pluto Payload System, which includes, besides the UVS component, visible and infrared imagers.



SwRI's Miniaturized Optimized Smart Sensor (MOSS) employs innovations in charged particle optics, component packaging, and high-voltage power supplies to achieve excellent sensitivity and resolution while minimizing costs and spacecraft resource requirements. Weighing less than one pound and requiring only 1/4 Watt of power, MOSS represents the next generation of space plasma instrumentation and is under consideration for several future NASA missions.



SwRI's Particle Environment Monitor on NASA's Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite measures auroral energy input into the Earth's atmosphere. Calculations by Institute researchers reveal dramatic ionization increases from energetic electron precipitation during periods of high geomagnetic activity (Ap=120). Such ionization enhancements affect the chemistry of the middle atmosphere.


This brochure was published in January 1995. For more information about space research, contact Dr. James L. Burch, Acting Director, Space Science Department, Space Science and Engineering Division, Southwest Research Institute, P.O. Drawer 28510, San Antonio, Texas 78228-0510, Phone (210) 522-2526, Fax (210) 520-9935.

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