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SwRI receives $1.5 million for thin-film deposition technology development

Work is under way at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) on a $1.5 million, three-year project awarded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop novel technologies for depositing thin films.

The contract award is under DARPA’s Local Control (LoCo) of Materials Synthesis program, which is investigating non-thermal approaches for depositing thin-film coatings onto the surfaces of a variety of materials. The objective of the program is to overcome the reliance on high-thermal energy input by examining the process of thin-film deposition at the molecular component level in areas such as reactant flux, surface mobility and reaction energy, among others. Many current high-temperature deposition processes cannot be used on military vehicles and other equipment because they exceed the temperature limit of the material. The LoCo program will attempt to create new, low-temperature deposition processes and a new range of coating-substrate pairings to improve the surface properties of materials used in a wide range of defense technologies including rotor blades, infrared missile domes and photovoltaics, among others.

“Drawing from our experience in developing novel plasma technologies and thin-film deposition processes, we are focusing on the thin-film deposition process component of reactant flux,” said Dr. Vicky Poenitzsch, a senior research scientist in SwRI’s Materials Engineering Department and manager of the DARPA project.

Contact Poenitzsch at (210) 522-3755 or


image for IBEX spacecraft

IBEX spacecraft images reveal unexpected heliotail structure

NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) spacecraft recently provided the first complete pictures of the solar system’s downwind region, revealing a unique and unexpected structure.

Researchers have long theorized that, like a comet, a “tail” trails the heliosphere, the giant bubble in which our solar system resides, as the heliosphere moves through interstellar space. The first IBEX images released in 2009 showed an unexpected ribbon of surprisingly high energetic neutral atom (ENA) emissions circling the upwind side of the solar system. With the collection of additional ENAs over the first year of observations, a structure dominated by lower energy ENAs emerged, which was preliminarily identified as the heliotail. However, it was quite small and appeared to be offset from the downwind direction, possibly because of interactions from the galaxy’s external magnetic field.

As the next two years of IBEX data filled in the observational hole in the downwind direction, researchers found a second tail region to the side of the previously identified one. The IBEX team reoriented the IBEX maps and two similar, low-energy ENA structures became clearly visible straddling the downwind direction of the heliosphere, indicating structures that better resemble “lobes” than a single unified tail.

“It may well be that these are separate structures bent back toward the downwind direction. However, we can’t say that for certain with the data we have today,” said Dr. Dave McComas, IBEX principal investigator and assistant vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute.

The paper, “The Heliotail Revealed by IBEX,” by D.J. McComas, M.A. Dayeh, H.O. Funsten, G. Livadiotis, and N.A. Schwadron, was published July 10, 2013 in the Astrophysical Journal.

IBEX is part of NASA’s series of low-cost, rapidly developed Small Explorer space missions. Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio leads the IBEX mission with teams of national and international partners. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the Explorers Program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Contact McComas at (210) 522-5983 or

Contact McComas at (210) 522-5983 or


photo of NASA's Lunar REconnaissance Orbiter (LRO)

Courtesy NASA

Moon radiation findings may reduce health risks to astronauts

Space scientists from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) and Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) report that data gathered by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) show that lighter materials like plastics provide effective shielding against the radiation hazards faced by astronauts during extended space travel. The finding could help reduce health risks to humans on future missions into deep space. Aluminum has always been the primary material in spacecraft construction, but it provides relatively little protection against high-energy cosmic rays and can add so much mass to spacecraft that they become cost-prohibitive to launch.

The scientists have published their findings online in the American Geophysical Union journal Space Weather. Titled “Measurements of Galactic Cosmic Ray Shielding with the CRaTER Instrument,“ the work is based on observations made by the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER) on board the LRO spacecraft. Lead author of the paper is Cary Zeitlin of the SwRI Earth, Oceans, and Space Department at UNH. Co-author Nathan Schwadron of the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space is the principal investigator for CRaTER.

Says Zeitlin, “This is the first study using observations from space to confirm what has been thought for some time — that plastics and other lightweight materials are pound-for-pound more effective for shielding against cosmic radiation than aluminum. Shielding can’t entirely solve the radiation exposure problem in deep space, but there are clear differences in effectiveness of different materials.”

The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., developed and manages the LRO mission. LRO’s current science mission is implemented for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate sponsored LRO’s initial one-year exploration mission that concluded in September 2010.

Contact Zeitlin at (303) 546-9670 or


photo of vehicles on highway

SwRI recognized for developing connected commercial vehicle technology

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) played a key role in a project recognized by the Intelligent Transportation Society of New York (ITS-NY) to advance national connected vehicle policy.

The Commercial Vehicle Infrastructure Integration Project (CVII) was the first significant national effort to integrate connected vehicle technology into large trucks and maintenance vehicles and to develop applications and functionalities specifically for commercial vehicle operations. ITS-NY recognized it as the Project of the Year at its 20th Annual Meeting and Technology Exhibition June 13–14 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Led by the New York State Department of Transportation, the project team included the I-95 Corridor Coalition, Volvo Group, SwRI, Kapsch and the Federal Highway Administration.

The project represents a milestone effort to advance national connected vehicle concepts by including the heavy vehicle industry as key stakeholders and users of the new technology. SwRI led the team’s efforts in software application development for on-board equipment. These applications utilize 5.9 GHz Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) to exchange data between the commercial vehicle, infrastructure and other commercial, passenger and maintenance vehicles to enable a cooperative system of intelligent vehicles.

“This project is the first of its kind to develop and test connected vehicle technology in commercial vehicles,” said Michael Brown, a staff engineer in SwRI’s Automation and Data Systems Division. “SwRI developed the capability for maintenance vehicles to alert commercial vehicles,” said Brown. “We also developed vehicle-to-vehicle applications, including blind-spot warnings, hardbraking events, tailgate warnings, and unsafe-to-merge/pass scenarios, as well as a railroad crossing warning system.”

Contact Brown at (210) 522-3104 or

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Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI®), headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, is a multidisciplinary, independent, nonprofit, applied engineering and physical sciences research and development organization with 9 technical divisions.