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Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission enters implementation phase

Just as the Voyager 2 spacecraft is approaching the edge of our solar system, SwRI received official confirmation from NASA Headquarters to proceed into the mission implementation phase for the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission. IBEX, which will provide global images of the interstellar boundary, the region between our solar system and interstellar space, is scheduled to launch in June 2008. 

"We are most honored to be confirmed at a time when NASA's science program is under such intense budgetary pressure," says Principal Investigator Dr. David J. McComas, who also serves as senior executive director of the SwRI Space Science and Engineering Division. "This tremendous support really shows the importance of the IBEX science mission.

"IBEX will let us visualize our home in the galaxy and imagine how it may have evolved over the history of the solar system," McComas continued. In mid-2008, the IBEX mission will launch a pair of energetic neutral atom (ENA) "cameras" to image the interaction between the solar system and the low-density material between the stars. The Sun's hot outer atmosphere continuously evaporates into space, forming the million-mile-per-hour solar wind that creates a protective envelope around our solar system, far beyond the most distant planets. 

IBEX will image our solar system's previously invisible outer boundaries to discover how the solar wind interacts with the galactic medium. 

"Everything we think we know about this region is from models, indirect observations and the recent single-point observations from Voyagers 1 and 2 that frankly have created as many questions as answers," said McComas. Voyager 2 may be approaching the termination shock, the outermost layer of our solar system, even sooner than expected based on when Voyager 1 crossed the region. Data suggest that the edge of the shock could be one billion miles closer to the sun in the southern region of the solar system than in the north, suggesting perhaps that the heliosphere is irregularly shaped.

"The extensive global data IBEX will collect, used in concert with the local data that the Voyager missions are sampling, will provide a much deeper understanding of the Sun's interaction with the galaxy," McComas added. "In addition to revealing many of the interstellar boundary's unknown properties, IBEX will explore how the solar wind regulates the galactic cosmic radiation from the galaxy. This radiation poses a major hazard to human space exploration of the solar system."

SwRI is partnering with Orbital Science Corporation, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Bern and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. In addition, the team includes a number of U.S. and international scientists from universities and other institutions, as well as the Adler Planetarium, which is leading education and public outreach for the mission. IBEX is a NASA Explorer Program mission. 

As the SwRI-led Interstellar Boundary Explorer mission enters the implementation phase, the spacecraft and instrument designs are being completed, and prototype hardware is being built and tested. The University of Bern built these electrostatic analyzer plates to bend particle trajectories, enabling very low-background observations of the edge of our solar system. 

Contact McComas at (210) 522-5983 or For more information about the IBEX mission, see

SwRI to characterize groundwater in Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer

A hydrology study by SwRI, currently under way in South Texas, represents the Institute's first close look at water supplies and water usage in the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer.

The five-month study for the Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District, with headquarters in Carrizo Springs, Texas, will assess current groundwater conditions and trends in the sand aquifer beneath Dimmit, La Salle and Zavala counties in light of historical usage.

"The study will help to determine whether the long-term water levels of the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer are decreasing, remaining the same or recovering within their district," said Dr. Ronald Green, a staff scientist in SwRI's Geosciences and Engineering Division. "Knowing the long-term trends helps with resource planning and management." He said, "Once you've determined how, and how quickly, the aquifer recharges under different conditions, you can then plan more effectively for water usage and water quality maintenance." 

The Carrizo-Wilcox is an extensive, sand-based aquifer that underlies a large portion of South and Central Texas. It provides drinking water for municipalities and individual residences and irrigation for agricultural operations.

Earlier SwRI studies have addressed geology, hydrology, groundwater characterization and patterns of movement within the Edwards limestone aquifer in Bexar County and also in Uvalde and Kinney counties west of San Antonio.

Contact Green at (210) 522-5305 or

Walker awarded ASME's Holley Medal

Dr. James D. Walker, a staff scientist in the Mechanical and Materials Engineering Division at SwRI, received the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Holley Medal.

ASME is a 120,000-member professional organization focused on technical, education and research issues of the engineering and technology community. The Holley Medal, established in 1924 in honor of Alexander L. Holley, is awarded to an individual in "recognition of a great or unique act of an engineering nature, which accomplishes a great and timely public benefit." Previous recipients include Henry Ford, Vannevar Bush, Edwin Land and Jack Kilby, among others.

Walker was honored in 2005 "or timely and accurate impact analysis and testing of insulating foam striking tile and leading edge components of the thermal protection system in support of the Space Shuttle Columbia accident investigation for the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and NASA." His detailed analysis is in Volume 2 of the Report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

SwRI engineers contributed significantly to the accident investigation, including recreating the impact scenario that occurred when a piece of insulating foam broke off the external fuel tank during launch.

Walker joined the staff of SwRI in 1988. An expert in impact physics, Walker's interests include the mechanical response of systems and materials. He has performed research in wave propagation, plasticity, fracture and failure of metals, composites and ceramics. His work includes and often combines large-scale numerical simulations, analytical techniques and experiments. In 2004, Popular Science named him one of the "Brilliant 10" young researchers in the country for his work in impact physics.

The author of more than 100 papers and publications, Walker holds bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in mathematics from the University of Utah, and is a member of a number of professional engineering and scientific societies, including ASME.

Contact Walker at (210) 522-2051 or

SwRI licenses FOCAS® technology for exhaust catalyst aging

Under a licensing agreement with AGNI Test Systems (ATS), SwRI has granted ATS exclusive rights to manufacture and distribute commercial FOCAS systems in the United States.

SwRI developed FOCAS as a more effective method to accelerate automotive exhaust catalyst aging. The licensing agreement grants ATS the right to manufacture, market, use and lease FOCAS systems commercially.

When conducting emission testing of new vehicle models, manufacturers use catalysts that have been operated or "aged" for a period that simulates the vehicle’s useful life. FOCAS offers a method of aging the catalysts much faster and more precisely than operating them on engines.

FOCAS uses a gasoline fueled burner with an integrated, computerized control system to age catalytic converters. The flow of exhaust gas from an engine can be simulated under a variety of load conditions, allowing full sized automotive catalyst systems to be rapidly aged. The system can provide exhaust gas at elevated temperatures for extended periods, with or without the introduction of engine lubricant oil to simulate engine oil consumption.

 "FOCAS can save automotive manufacturers millions of dollars a year in catalyst aging," said Bob Burrahm, a program manager in SwRI’s Engine, Emissions and Vehicle Research Division. “Our market research suggests that about $40 million per year is spent globally in performing catalyst aging testing. The FOCAS burner based catalyst aging system can produce much higher exhaust temperatures than an engine, allowing aging time to be significantly reduced.”

Catalytic converters became part of the vehicle exhaust system in the mid 1970s to meet emission regulations mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Since the introduction of the three way catalyst, engineers and scientists have worked to optimize the performance and durability of these devices to meet increasingly stringent emissions and durability standards.

Vehicle manufacturers are required to demonstrate that each catalyst system will meet emissions regulations for the useful life of the vehicle on which it is used.

Contact Burrahm at (210) 522-3064 or

For more information about FOCAS, visit

Published in the Summer 2006 issue of Technology Today®, published by Southwest Research Institute. For more information, contact Joe Fohn.

Summer 2006 Technology Today
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