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Joint ESA/NASA mission to use SPICE to explore Solar System’s center

An imaging coronal spectrograph called SPICE (Spectral Imaging of the Coronal Environment), designed by scientists and engineers at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), has been selected by the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA for ESA’s Solar Orbiter mission to explore the innermost regions of the solar system from the closest distances to the Sun ever attempted. Solar Orbiter will be positioned at a unique vantage point, about one-fourth the distance of the Earth from the Sun.

The SPICE instrument is one of 10 selected to fly aboard the joint ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter mission. SPICE will remotely measure different wavelengths of light emitted from the Sun to evaluate the plasma properties and composition of the solar atmosphere using unprecedented spatial and spectral resolution. The data will advance our knowledge of the Sun’s dynamics to better understand the effects on Earth and the solar system. SPICE is expected to help understand the connection between in-situ measurements of the solar wind and its source regions near the Sun.

“SPICE is uniquely suited to fill a critical gap in our understanding of the basic conditions near the Sun and how these conditions affect the solar wind and the space environment near Earth,” said Dr. Don Hassler, SPICE principal investigator and program director in the Boulder office of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division.

The SPICE investigation is part of NASA’s Living with a Star Program, which is designed to understand how and why the Sun varies, how planetary systems respond and the effects on human space and Earth activities. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center manages the program for the agency’s Heliophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate.

“One of the greatest threats to human space exploration is the sudden, unpredictable occurrence of radiation outbursts from the Sun,” said Hassler. “Even satellites and power grids on and around Earth are at risk. By improving our understanding of the dynamics of the Sun, SPICE will help develop the capability for forecasting and predicting solar conditions that could affect space travelers as well as life here on Earth.”

SwRI is leading the development of SPICE, in collaboration with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt, Md.), Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (United Kingdom), Max Planck Institute (Germany), Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale (France) and Institute for Theoretical Physics (Norway). The Solar Orbiter spacecraft is currently scheduled for launch in 2017.

Contact Hassler at (303) 546-9670 or

New instrument has potential to detect water deep underground on Mars

With the whoosh of compressed gas and the whir of unspooling wire, a team of Boulder scientists and engineers tested a new instrument prototype that might be used to detect groundwater deep inside Mars.

The Mars Time Domain Electromagnetic Sounder (MTDEM) uses induction to generate electrical currents in the ground, whose secondary magnetic fields are in turn detected at the planetary surface. In this way, the electrical conductivity of the subsurface can be reconstructed.

“Groundwater that has been out of atmospheric circulation for eons will be very salty,” said the project’s principal investigator Dr. Robert Grimm, a director in the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute. “It is a near-ideal exploration target for inductive systems.”

The time-domain inductive method uses a large, flat-lying loop of wire on the ground to generate and receive electromagnetic signals. In order to do this robotically, the team developed a launch system that shoots two projectiles, each paying out spooled wire as they fly. A system deploying a 200-meter loop would be less than 6 kilograms mass and could detect groundwater at depths up to 5 kilometers (3 miles). Most of the instrument’s mass would be in the loop and deployment system.

Grimm said, “Subsurface, liquid water on Mars could be a habitable zone for microbes. We know that huge volumes of discharged groundwater have shaped Mars’ ancient surface. Is that water still locked inside?”

The article “A time domain electromagnetic sounder for detection and characterization of groundwater on Mars” was published in Planetary and Space Science. The MTDEM development was funded by NASA.

Contact Grimm at (720) 240-0149 or

IBEX spacecraft detects fast neutral hydrogen coming from the Moon

NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) spacecraft has made the first observations of very fast hydrogen atoms coming from the moon, following decades of speculation and searching for their existence.

During spacecraft commissioning, the IBEX team turned on the IBEX-Hi instrument, built primarily by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which measures atoms with speeds from about half a million to 2.5 million miles per hour. Its companion sensor, IBEX-Lo, built by Lockheed Martin, the University of New Hampshire, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Bern in Switzerland, measures atoms with speeds from about one hundred thousand to 1.5 million mph.

“Just after we got IBEX-Hi turned on, the moon happened to pass right through its field of view, and there they were,” said Dr. David J. McComas, IBEX principal investigator and assistant vice president of the SwRI Space Science and Engineering Division. “The instrument lit up with a clear signal of the neutral atoms being detected as they backscattered from the moon.”

The solar wind, the supersonic stream of charged particles that flows out from the Sun, moves out into space in every direction at speeds of about a million mph. The Earth’s strong magnetic field shields our planet from the solar wind. The Moon, with its relatively weak magnetic field, has no such protection, causing the solar wind to slam onto the moon’s sunward side.

The IBEX team estimates that only about 10 percent of the solar wind ions reflect off the sunward side of the moon as neutral atoms, while the remaining 90 percent are embedded in the lunar surface. Characteristics of the lunar surface, such as dust, craters and rocks, play a role in determining the percentage of particles that become embedded and the percentage of neutral particles, as well as their direction of travel, that scatter.

The combined scattering and neutralization processes now observed at the moon have implications for interactions with objects across the solar system, such as asteroids, Kuiper Belt objects and other moons. The plasma-surface interactions occurring within protostellar nebula, the region of space that forms around planets and stars – as well as exoplanets, planets around other stars – also can be inferred.

IBEX’s primary mission is to observe and map the complex interactions occurring at the edge of the solar system, where the million-miles-per-hour solar wind runs into the interstellar material from the rest of the galaxy. The spacecraft carries the most sensitive neutral atom detectors ever flown in space, enabling researchers not only to measure particle energy, but also to make precise images of where they are coming from.

IBEX is the latest in NASA’s series of low-cost, rapidly developed Small Explorers spacecraft. The IBEX mission was developed by SwRI with a national and international team of partners. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center manages the Explorers Program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Contact McComas at (210) 522-5983 or

Data fusion tool helps fight crime, terror attacks

Hydra, a prototype intelligence gathering tool developed by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) software engineers, combines data from multiple sources to help military or law enforce¬ment officials identify and react to potential threats.

The patent-pending system gathers data from sources such as intelligence field reports, phone records, law enforcement reports, web page entries, news articles, and intelligence databases and combines them with known infor¬mation about facilities and national infrastructure using integrated simulation, analysis and data fusion technologies.

“This tool is designed to aid in iden¬tifying potential terror threats using as much data as possible and allowing a human operator to specify the condi¬tions that constitute a potential threat,” said Peter D. Hottenstein, Manager of the Systems Modeling Section within SwRI’s Training, Simulation and Perfor¬mance Improvement Division.

“The system then compares incom¬ing data against the specified criteria. The approach applies directly to the National Infrastructure Protection Plan specified by the Department of Home¬land Security, but it could also be used by the military to support foreign operations,” Hottenstein said. He added that other potential applications include industrial facility security operations.

Threats are presented as warnings or alerts and automatic map movements provide analysts with immediate feed¬back as to location, threat content and other information. Threat definitions can be developed, stored and managed in libraries for a wide range of data fusion analyses, ranging from general¬ized screening techniques to specific target threats.

Hydra was developed under the SwRI internal research and development program, which broadens the Institute’s technology base and allows engineers and scientists to explore innovative concepts.

Published in the Summer 2009 issue of Technology Today®, published by Southwest Research Institute. For more information, contact Joe Fohn.

Summer 2009 Technology Today
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