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image of melting of ice and permafrost

Courtesy George Burba
A new study reveals rapid melting of ice and permafrost is altering Alaska, Canada, and Russia.

New Views Reveal Changing Landscapes

Dr. Marius Necsoiu, a remote sensing scientist, has been analyzing aerial and satellite imagery to reveal how a warming climate impacts everything from Romanian rock glaciers to permafrost in the arctic tundra.

The most recent study, published in Nature Geoscience in March, used analyses of aerial and satellite images to help an international team of 19 researchers identify widespread changes to the arctic tundra. Thawing underground ice is degrading permafrost formations known as ice wedges. This study is the first to determine that rapid melting has become widespread throughout arctic regions in Alaska, Canada, and Russia. Necsoiu compared historical aerial photos and satellite images from 1948 to 1990 with recent images taken from 2005 and 2012. Combined with field observations, the team’s analyses showed that deep troughs formed in the landscape as ice wedges melted.

Necsoiu is also studying how a warming climate is affecting permafrost regions in Europe. National Science Foundation-funded analysis reveals changes to rock glacier movements and alpine lakes in the Southern Carpathian Mountains of Romania. Both projects received attention in mainstream media and the scientific community. In March and early April, the scientific social media site ranked Necsoiu as the most popular SwRI researcher by reads.

"That was a nice little feather in our cap for this extremely important field of work," noted Dr. Wesley Patrick, SwRI’s vice president of Geosciences and Engineering.

image of aerial drones

SwRI Helping Firefighters Adopt Drones

First responders are looking at aerial drones as useful tools for search-and-rescue missions, but it's difficult to know which drone's capabilities will match a particular need.

Under the ASTM E54 technical committee on Homeland Security Applications, SwRI is leading a worldwide team of robotics experts developing drone testing and training standards for first responders.

"The principles of flight are the same for hobby aircraft as they are for tactical drones, so first responders don't have to spend a lot of money to learn how to fly," said SwRI's Senior Research Engineer Andrew Moore. "When the time does come to make a purchase, our test bed will help them to better understand each drone’s performance and make informed purchasing decisions."

On Jan. 27, members of the Austin Fire Department and San Antonio Police Department visited SwRI to learn more about the project — and test their flying skills. They operated quad-copters equipped with cameras to conduct visual tests to determine camera visibility in tight conditions.

SwRI's current test facility is 16 feet by 24 feet, and includes a bank of 16 fans to simulate windy conditions and obstacles to test tight maneuvers. Constructed of wood, it is covered in netting to help protect operators. Over the next several months, committee members will test a variety of drones as they develop standards. A prototype test facility is scheduled to be delivered to the Austin Fire Department this spring.

image of the Moon and Earth

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

Material Differences

SwRI scientists combined dynamical, thermal, and chemical Moon formation models to explain key differences between the composition of lunar rocks and those on Earth. Moon rocks are more depleted of volatile elements such as potassium, sodium, and zinc, which tend to have lower boiling points and vaporize readily.

"Explaining the Moon’s volatile depletion has been a long-standing mystery, and yet it is a key piece of evidence about how the Earth-Moon system formed," said SwRI Associate Vice President Dr. Robin Canup, a lead author of a Nature Geoscience paper detailing the findings.

Scientists think the Moon formed from an Earthorbiting disk of vapor and molten matter produced by a giant impact between Earth and a Mars-sized body approximately 4.5 billion years ago. Previously, scientists had considered that volatiles vaporized by the impact might have escaped before the Moon formed.

"However, few volatiles may have actually been lost because the velocity needed to escape the Earth’s gravity is quite high," said Canup. "The new research suggests instead that as the Moon completed its growth, volatile-rich melt was preferentially deposited onto the Earth, rather than onto the growing Moon."

Canup’s team included researchers from SwRI, Dordt College, and Washington University. The paper, "Lunar Volatile Depletion Due to Incomplete Accretion Within an Impact-generated Disk," was published online in Nature Geoscience. This work was funded in part by the NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI).

image of an open book

SwRI, CU Boulder Collaborate to Boost Graduate Education

A new collaboration between SwRI and the University of Colorado Boulder will allow graduate students to more easily contribute to SwRI’s planetary and space science programs.

CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) will oversee the program, which will facilitate students contributing to SwRI projects. Staff at LASP and SwRI often collaborate on NASA-funded missions to build spaceflight instruments and conduct space science studies. The agreement not only allows SwRI staff to serve as adjoint faculty members and thesis advisers but also facilitates integrating students into SwRI research projects.

"We’re helping to train the next generation of scientists," said SwRI’s Dr. Joel Parker. "If we offer positive experiences for student researchers, they might one day become SwRI or LASP researchers. That’s significant at a time when it has been difficult to recruit graduates to work in the sciences."

Six students have been identified to transfer into the program from several academic departments, including astrophysical and planetary sciences, atmospheric and oceanic sciences, physics, aerospace, and engineering.

"These are scientists and engineers at the birth of their careers with an energy, fresh perspective, and curiosity that can bring a significant spark and helpful hands to any project," Parker said.

image of technician with new pollution abatement system

Courtesy NASA/SwRI
In this highly processed image of Comet Encke, individual clumps of tail material (indicated by blue dots) bob and twist in the turbulent solar wind. An SwRI/ University of Delaware team measured these clumps to determine the flow of the solar wind.

Comet’s Tail Sheds Light on Solar Wind

Turbulence explains heat, variability

While we can’t see the wind, we can observe things that it blows about. By that same measure, an SwRI-led team studied movements of a comet’s tail to understand more about the solar wind, the supersonic outflow of electrically charged gas emitted by the Sun.

Scientists used NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) to study Comet Encke’s tail. They found that the solar wind flows through interplanetary space much as the wind blows on Earth, with gusting turbulence and swirling vortices. That turbulence can help explain two of the wind’s most curious features — its variable nature and unexpectedly high temperatures.

"The solar wind at Earth is about 70 times hotter than one might expect," said Dr. Craig DeForest, a solar physicist at SwRI’s Boulder, Colo., location. "The source of this extra heat has been a mystery of solar wind physics for several decades."

Based on analysis of the comet tail motions, the researchers calculated that large-scale turbulence provides sufficient kinetic energy to drive the high temperatures observed in the solar wind. Turbulence may also explain solar wind variability.

image of racing team receiving a $5,000 check

On behalf of SwRI, Vice President Daniel Stewart (right) presents a $5,000 check to Amanda McCombs and Jacob Hiller, members of The University of Texas at San Antonio Formula Racing Team.

SwRI Supports UTSA

SwRI donated $5,000 to The University of Texas at San Antonio Formula Racing Team in support of UTSA’s Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) car. Student-teams compete each year against other university teams. In 2015, the UTSA team placed 17th out of 85 teams. The 2016 event will be held June 15-18 in Lincoln, Neb. Formula SAE promotes careers and excellence in engineering as it encompasses all aspects of the automotive industry.

image of Juno spacecraft and Jupiter

Courtesy NASA
Juno is the first spacecraft to have a radiation vault using titanium to shield the electronics from Jupiter’s harsh radiation.

Juno Sets Solar Power Record

Spacecraft burns for Jupiter

In January 2016, the Juno spacecraft broke a record, becoming humanity’s most distant solar-powered emissary. A month later, the NASA spacecraft successfully executed a maneuver to adjust its flight path as it closes in on Jupiter. The spacecraft’s thrusters fired for 35 minutes to refine its trajectory, helping set the stage for Juno’s arrival at the solar system’s largest planet in July. "Juno is all about pushing the edge of technology to help us learn about our origins," said SwRI’s Dr. Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator. "We use every known technique to see through Jupiter’s clouds and reveal the secrets Jupiter holds of our solar system’s early history. It just seems right that the sun is helping us learn about the origin of Jupiter and the other planets that orbit it." Juno launched on Aug. 5, 2011. The spacecraft will orbit the Jovian world 33 times, skimming to within 3,100 miles above the planet’s cloud tops every 14 days. During the flybys, Juno will probe beneath Jupiter’s obscuring cloud cover and study its aurorae to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere, and magnetosphere.

Juno’s name comes from mythology. The god Jupiter drew a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief, and his wife — the goddess Juno — was able to peer through the clouds and reveal Jupiter’s true nature.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., manages the Juno mission for Bolton, who is an associate vice president of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft.

image of SwRI Staff Members and a propane-specific engine

SwRI Innovators Awarded

Three SwRI staff members received a World LPG Association (WLPGA) 2015 Innovation Award for their paper titled "Direct Injection Liquid Propane." The paper discusses using a propane gas in a modern downsized and boosted direct-injected engine.

Gregory Hansen, Dennis Robertson, and Mark Walls (left to right above) teamed up to investigate using new technologies and alternative fuels for improved fuel economy and lower carbon dioxide emissions. The team converted a Ford EcoBoost engine to run on liquefied propane gas without making engine hardware changes. Propane’s anti-knock properties suit direct injection engine applications and show potential to improve efficiency. They demonstrated how propanespecific engine calibration could allow increased compression ratios.

The project was funded through the Propane Education & Research Council, which promotes the use of propane in applications ranging from garden tractors to heavy-duty on-road vehicles. Walls presented the paper at the Global Technology Conference during the 27th World LPG Forum. The award was presented during the 28th World LPG Forum in Singapore.

image of SwRI engineer preparing one of eight CYGNSS microsatellites for testing

Engineering Technologist Jim Foster prepares one of eight CYGNSS microsatellites for testing in SwRI’s new 8-foot-diameter thermalvacuum chamber.

CYGNSS Constellation Completed

NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission has reached a milestone in its goal of improving hurricane forecasting. SwRI has completed assembly of the eight microsatellites. Scheduled to launch in Fall 2016, CYGNSS will study the inner core of hurricanes in greater detail to better understand their rapid intensification.

Assembly of the microsatellites began in August 2015. The body of each satellite measures roughly 20×25×11 inches, which is slightly larger than a standard carry-on suitcase. When fully assembled, the satellites will each weigh about 64 pounds. With solar panels deployed, each microsatellite will have a wingspan of 5.5 feet.

"We’re thrilled to have met an important project milestone," said John Scherrer, CYGNSS project manager at SwRI. "We are now conducting thermal testing in a new vacuum chamber; it’s exciting to see this mission come together. Help for the hurricane forecast community is now just around the corner."

The goal of CYGNSS is to improve hurricane intensity forecasts. The constellation of eight microsatellites will measure surface winds in and near the inner core of hurricanes, including regions beneath clouds and intense inner rain bands that could not previously be measured from space.

image of asteroids in space

Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

SwRI Awarded $3 Million NASA Contract

A proposed 11-year mission to study the Trojan asteroids near Jupiter is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an SwRI planetary scientist.

Dr. Harold F. Levison, from SwRI’s Boulder office, is the principal investigator for Lucy, a proposed NASA science mission. Lucy would probe primitive asteroids left over from the formation of the outer gas giants. The mission is among five science investigations selected as a possible future mission under NASA’s Discovery Program.

Levison will develop concept design studies and analyses for the mission that would study these five space relics. If selected, "Lucy, Surveying the Diversity of Trojan Asteroids: The Fossils of Planet Formation," would launch in 2021 with a final encounter in 2032.

"Because the Trojan asteroids are remnants of that primordial material, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system," Levison said. "These asteroids are in an area that really is the last population of objects in the solar system to be visited." The project is named Lucy in a nod to the name given to one of the influential human fossils found on Earth.

The spacecraft would include a sophisticated suite of remote-sensing instruments to study geologic, surface, reflective composition, thermal, and other physical properties of the asteroids. Dr. Catherine Olkin, a manager in SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division, is the mission’s deputy principal investigator.

Team members include Goddard Space Flight Center and Lockheed Martin. Lucy and the four other potential missions that NASA selected are among 27 proposed. NASA is expected to fund up to two missions by September 2016.

image of robot

ROS-Industrial is an open-source project initiated by SwRI to extend the advanced capabilities of the Robot Operating System (ROS) software to manufacturing.

image of ROS-Industrial logo

ROS-Industrial: Does It Blend?

Metal fabrication processes — casting, machining, and welding — will often leave weld splatter and other surface-finish defects on parts. The ROS-Industrial Consortium (RIC) led by SwRI is developing robotic solutions to remove defects with Scan-N-Plan open-source software.

The goal is to devise a solution that combines the flexibility of manual blending with the repeatability and safety of a robotic system. The manual processes available include sanding, grinding, bead blasting, and vibratory polishing. In high-mix, low-volume applications, however, manual processing can present ergonomic or safety hazards. Moreover, operator-to-operator inconsistencies result in variations in product quality, excessive use of consumables, and other inefficiencies.

"In the third phase, we optimized robotic blending software to work about 1,000 times faster than in phase 2," said SwRI’s Paul Hvass, who manages RIC-Americas. The consortium provides cost-shared applied research and development for advanced factory automation.

In the next phase, RIC members will incorporate higher-resolution sensing and integrate process planning and quality assurance steps to create a closed-loop, sensor-driven process. These refinements will accommodate the complex surfaces found on real parts and improve overall finish quality.

color map of radio frequency

Courtesy NASA/Space Environment Technologies, Inc.

Novel Geolocation Technology on the Horizon

The U.S. Air Force has awarded a $9.4 million contract to an SwRI-led team to develop novel geolocation technology. A new system will detect and locate communications and other high-frequency (HF) signals with unprecedented accuracy. The program, funded by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), will integrate a high-fidelity ionospheric model with a geolocation system for the first time to achieve this level of precision. Signals intelligence (SIGINT) applications monitor HF communications and other radio frequency emissions, such as over-thehorizon radar, to identify strategically important signals of interest and then use direction finding and other techniques to map the source of the signal.

"Ionospheric uncertainties are always the most significant source of error in HF geolocation," said Brandon Nance, the project lead in SwRI’s Defense and Intelligence Solutions Division. He explained that space weather in the ionosphere — including sunspots, the solar wind, and day/night cycles — can change how a signal is reflected back to Earth and affect accuracy. "By integrating a high-fidelity system that corrects for real-time ionospheric activity, we expect to improve geolocation accuracy significantly."

Phase one of IARPA’s High Frequency Geolocation (HFGeo) program examined the technology improvements needed to achieve IARPA’s goals. SwRI will collaborate with Northwest Research Associates, Lowell Digisonde International, and YarCom Inc. on phases two and three of HFGeo to develop and test this new technology. Both phases will be completed by January 2018.

Benefiting government, industry and the public through innovative science and technology
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.