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Ulysses’ observations reveal Sun is blowing surprisingly weaker solar wind

Surprising data from the Ulysses spacecraft show that the solar wind, or the continuous outflow of plasma and magnetic fields from the Sun’s atmosphere (corona) into interplanetary space, is only about three-fourths as strong as it was a decade ago, during the last interval of low solar activity. Since its launch in 1990, Ulysses has completed nearly three polar orbits around the Sun, enabling researchers to observe the three-dimensional structure of the solar wind and heliosphere, or region of space dominated by our Sun, for the first time.

“This pioneering spacecraft has allowed us to discover new and fascinating things about the Sun’s million-mile-per-hour solar wind and how it changes over time,” said Dr. David J. McComas, principal investigator of the Solar Wind Observations Over the Poles of the Sun (SWOOPS) experiment onboard Ulysses and senior executive director of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division. “To see such a significant and consistent long-term reduction in the solar wind output is really remarkable.”

Over its 18 years in orbit about the Sun, Ulysses has observed the solar wind at both the minimum and maximum phases of the solar activity (or sunspot) cycle. During solar minimum, the wind is well ordered, with a fast, steady wind over the poles and a slow variable wind at lower latitudes; at solar maximum, the solar wind is highly chaotic, with fast and slow wind streams and more frequent coronal mass ejections at all solar latitudes.

“During the third orbit, we weren’t surprised to see a return to a solar minimum configuration,” said McComas, “but we were surprised to find that the solar wind is much less powerful than it had been in the previous solar minimum. The wind speed is almost the same, but the density and pressure are significantly lower, and the wind is blowing out about a quarter less hard.”

Ulysses is a joint venture of NASA and the European Space Agency. ESA provided the spacecraft and NASA provided the launch vehicle and upper stage boosters. An international team of investigators designed and built the science payload. For more information about Ulysses, visit: or

Contact McComas at (210) 522-5983 or

Holt elected ASME president for 2009

Dr. Amos Holt, vice president of Environmental, Safety and Quality Systems at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), has been elected president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. He will begin serving a one-year term as president in June 2009. ASME announced the selection at its 2008 International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition, held Oct. 31 in Boston.

Holt joined SwRI in 1985 as vice president of its Nondestructive Evaluation Science and Technology Division. His previous employers were Bell Helicopter and Babcock & Wilcox. He became vice president of Institute Quality Systems in 2000, a role later expanded to include oversight of SwRI’s Environmental and Safety Systems program.

Holt, who has been a member of ASME for 26 years, has served in a number of positions for the organization including secretary and treasurer. He was named a Fellow in 1993, and was elected an Honorary Member in 2002 for “developing quality procedures for nondestructive evaluation and advancing NDE applications in the aerospace, petroleum, electric power and other industries.” He is also a 2000 recipient of ASME’s Dedicated Service Award.

SwRI-led Center for Lunar Origin and Evolution selected to be part of NASA Lunar Science Institute

A team led by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) has been selected by NASA to be a founding member of the agency’s new Lunar Science Institute. The new Center for Lunar Origin and Evolution (CLOE) will help build fundamental knowledge of the history of the Moon and, by inference, the Earth and the rest of the Solar System.

CLOE is one of seven teams selected by NASA as the first members of the Lunar Science Institute (NLSI), which is dedicated to advancing the field of lunar science. The $6 million, four-year, SwRI-led effort focuses on expanding knowledge on the formation and bombardment history of the Moon.

“Unlike the Earth, which has been heavily processed, the Moon still bears the scars from the era when the planets formed,” said CLOE Principal Investigator Dr. William Bottke, assistant director of the Space Studies Department of the SwRI Planetary Science Directorate in Boulder, Colo. “CLOE will bring a multidisciplinary approach to unraveling the origin of the Earth-Moon system and the early evolution of the solar system.”

Dr. Robin Canup, executive director of the Planetary Science Directorate, added, “Our participation in NLSI moves our group in an exciting new direction, and we look forward to contributing to NASA’s new lunar science initiative.”

CLOE research focuses on three scientific themes, including the formation of the Moon through a giant collision with the early Earth, the early bombardment history of the Moon, and changes in the comet and asteroid impact rate over time. The research brings together expertise in a wide range of fields, including the study of planet and satellite formation (in collaboration with the University of Arizona and the Carnegie Institution for Science); analysis of the oldest minerals on Earth, the Moon and meteorites (in partnership with the University of Colorado Department of Geological Sciences); and modeling of the evolution of comets and asteroids that have hit the Moon. Team members, in collaboration with educators at the Denver School for Science and Technology, the Summer Science Program and the Lunar and Planetary Institute, will work to encourage and excite future lunar scientists, educators and the public.

Contact Bottke at (303) 546-9670 or

Khair named an SAE Fellow

Magdi K. Khair, an Institute engineer in the Engine, Emissions and Vehicle Research Division at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), was named a Fellow of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE).

The honor of Fellow recognizes long-term members who have made a significant impact on the Society. A grade member for more than 20 years, Khair was honored for his leadership, research and innovation on diesel engine technology, specifically exhaust gas recirculation.

Khair has been employed at SwRI since 1991. A specialist in the areas of engine testing and exhaust emissions control, Khair provides technical support and leadership in various aspects of engine exhaust emissions measurement, characterization and control technology development.

Khair is the recipient of the Forest R. McFarland Award by SAE for significant contributions to a number of diesel-related technical and educational activities. He also received three SwRI Office of Automotive Engineering Mentor Awards, nominated by his peers for the dedication of his time and skills to help educate fellow staff members.


IBEX building first all-sky map of the edge of the solar system

Following two months of commissioning, during which the spacecraft and sensors were tuned for optimum mission performance, the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) spacecraft began gathering data to build the first maps of the edge of the heliosphere, the region of space influenced by the Sun.

IBEX is using energetic neutral atom (ENA) imaging to create the first global maps of interactions between the million-mile-per-hour solar wind blown out in all directions by the Sun and the low-density material between the stars, known as the interstellar medium.

“We are seeing fabulous initial results from IBEX, but just as artisans use looms to build up colorful textiles by weaving one thread at a time, the IBEX sensors also need time Ð six months Ð to build up a complete map of the sky,” said Dr. David McComas, IBEX principal investigator and senior executive director of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute.

IBEX will enable researchers to examine the structures and dynamics of the outer heliosphere and to investigate the acceleration and propagation of charged particles in this complex and important region. IBEX is the latest in NASA’s series of low-cost, rapidly developed Small Explorers spacecraft. The IBEX mission was developed by Southwest Research Institute 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

Published in the Winter 2008 issue of Technology Today®, published by Southwest Research Institute. For more information, contact Joe Fohn.

Winter 2008 Technology Today
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