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image of two young craters

SwRI scientists discovered these two geologically young craters within some of the deepest craters in the Moon’s darkest regions. The one on the left lies within Slater Crater, named for the late Dr. David C. Slater, a former SwRI space scientist who designed and built the LAMP instrument.

'Fresh' lunar craters discovered

An SwRI-led team of scientists discovered two geologically young craters — one 16 million, the other between 75 and 420 million, years old — in the Moon’s deep, dark regions.

"These 'young' impact craters are a really exciting discovery," said Dr. Kathleen Mandt, who outlined the findings in a paper recently published by the journal Icarus. "Finding geologically young craters and honing in on their age helps us understand the collision history in the solar system."

Key to this discovery was the SwRI-developed Lyman-Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP) instrument aboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). LAMP uses the far-ultraviolet Lyman-alpha band skyglow and light from ultraviolet-bright stars to "see" in the dark and image permanently shaded regions of the Moon. Using LAMP and LRO’s Mini-RF radar data, the team mapped the floors of very large, deep craters near the lunar south pole.

When a small object collides with a larger object, such as the Moon, the impact creates a crater on the larger body. During the impact, the ejected material blankets the area surrounding the crater. The ejecta blankets of "fresh," relatively young craters have rough surfaces of rubble and a sprinkling of condensed, bright dust. Over millions of years, these features undergo weathering and become covered with layers of fluffy, dark dust.

The areas around the two craters are brighter and rougher than the surrounding landscape. The team estimated the age of one crater at about 16 million years. The other crater’s ejecta blanket had faded, showing that this crater must be at least 75 million years old. But fluffy dust would have completely covered the ejecta blanket within 420 million years, providing an upper limit on its age.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter project funded this research.

image research vehicle is equipped with SwRI’s Ranger localization technology for automated vehicles

This research vehicle is equipped with SwRI’s Ranger localization technology for automated vehicles. Using a ground-facing camera, illumination, and algorithms, Ranger allows for precise automated driving, accurate to within
2 centimeters.

Ranger research kit

SwRI recently showcased a kit-based version of its award-winning, patented Ranger precision vehicle localization solution. SwRI’s system enables precise navigation for automated vehicles using commercially available hardware in combination with novel algorithms. The Ranger kit enables automated driving, valet parking in garages and structures, freight distribution, and docking of buses and large trucks when integrated into commercial vehicles.

"We are excited to make the latest version of this technology available to potential clients who want to integrate these systems into automated vehicles for a variety of applications," said Dr. Kristopher Kozak, who led Ranger’s development. "We have made this technology smaller, faster, and more robust for real-world use at a relatively low cost."

Ranger uses a ground-facing camera, illumination, and localization algorithms to provide precise position and orientation measurements. Ranger images the unique "fingerprint" of road surfaces by matching thousands of distinguishing ground features, such as aggregate, cracks, and road markings, to corresponding features collected and stored in a map.

"GPS is ubiquitous, everybody has GPS on their phones, but it’s not always as accurate as you need it to be for automated vehicle localization," Kozak added. "Ranger is a low-cost, high-precision localization system that overcomes a lot of problems affecting GPS systems."

 illustration of 3DStress software

Predicting man-made earthquakes

In the late 1990s, SwRI geologists developed 3DStress® software to identify the likelihood of a damaging earthquake within the vicinity of a potential high-level nuclear waste repository. This award-winning software has since been used extensively to evaluate oil and gas production and characterize geothermal reservoirs.

The latest version will offer new tools to help mitigate the frequency and distribution of induced, or "man-made," earthquakes associated with injecting wastewater into deep disposal wells. Within the past decade, otherwise seismically stable areas in Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio, and Kansas have seen increasing earthquake activity associated with injection wells. States are starting to introduce regulations mandating a seismic analysis before drilling new wells.

"If you plan to inject a large volume of water at a certain rate in an area that has known faults, 3DStress can assess the earthquake risk and predict magnitude," said Dr. Alan Morris, an SwRI geoscientist who led the current software updates.

Most petroleum wells produce a substantial amount of water along with the oil and gas. Managing this so-called "produced water" is an important issue. Primarily, that water is reinjected into producing reservoirs to enhance oil and gas recovery or into deep wells for disposal. It is the disposal wells that seem to increase seismic activity.

Earthquakes happen when an underground geologic fault slips. During injection, as fluid pressure increases, a previously stable fault can become unstable and slip, producing an earthquake. Man-made earthquakes are not a new phenomenon. Numerous documented examples have occurred since the 1930s from dam construction, reservoir filling, and underground fluid injection.

Using well hydraulics along with slip tendency analysis, the new version of 3DStress provides tools that can quickly evaluate fault reactivation and induced seismicity.

image of rocks

Moments before re-entry, BORE experienced an asteroid-like gravity field allowing rocks to settle the way they would on a small asteroid. The red and blue tracking "blips" are used for data analysis.

A much more interesting box of rocks

To better understand the surface of near-Earth asteroids, SwRI conducted an autonomous microgravity experiment aboard a recent Blue Origin space vehicle test flight. The Box Of Rocks Experiment (BORE) used transparent boxes to hold two types of rocks that simulate an asteroid’s regolith — the layer of loose, heterogeneous material covering small asteroids. Video cameras recorded the piles of rocks through the entire flight. Researchers tracked the rocks’ movements from frame to frame to better understand the dynamics involved in the formation and evolution of coarse regolith on small asteroids.

"BORE was designed as a simple, no-moving-parts experiment to study the settling effects of regolith," said SwRI’s Dr. Dan Durda, BORE principal investigator. "We know very little about the low-gravity geological processes on the surfaces of these small bodies. Even watching the jostling behavior during low-speed collisions as these regolith simulants settle in microgravity can teach us a lot about what to expect as we set off to explore them."

BORE is one of three experiment payloads designed and developed for eventual human-tended suborbital spaceflight under SwRI’s suborbital science program, led by SwRI Associate Vice President Dr. Alan Stern.

"This is an exciting time," said Stern. "Congratulations to Blue Origin and the BORE team. We are looking forward to many more flights and many more kinds of experiments in the coming era of commercial suborbital space flight."

illustration of the outside of one Zika virus particle

Courtesy David Goodsell ©
The outside of one Zika virus particle, and a cross section of another, interacts with a cell.

Rhodium software targets Zika

The rapid spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus is emerging as a global health threat. Zika symptoms are generally mild; however, the virus can cause serious birth defects when pregnant women are infected. SwRI is applying its proprietary Rhodium™ Therapeutic Drug Development Software to accelerate drug discovery for Zika.

Currently, there are no vaccines or medicines to prevent or fight the infection. SwRI is working with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases to find compounds to target Zika. SwRI scientists used computer modeling and 3-D visualization to screen 50,000 potential candidates in just two days. With Rhodium, chemists identified the top eight contenders for further evaluation.

"Zika is tricky," said Dr. Jonathan Bohmann, who led the development of Rhodium. "Symptoms are mild. Individuals may not know they are sick, which can spur infection rates. Rhodium rapidly reveals new possibilities to address rampant devastating diseases like Zika."

This work also will be valuable for addressing mosquito-borne Dengue fever, which is similar to Zika but with more severe symptoms. Chemists also have performed similar research for the Ebola virus. SwRI offers Rhodium drug discovery as a service.

image of Pluto postal stamp

Courtesy USPS

Special delivery: Earth to Pluto

In 2006, NASA placed a now-obsolete 29-cent "Pluto: Not Yet Explored" stamp in the New Horizons spacecraft and sent it on the history-making mission to Pluto and beyond. On May 31, the Postal Service released the "Pluto—Explored!" stamp, recognizing the first reconnaissance of Pluto in 2015 by NASA’s New Horizons mission.

"Since the early 1990s the old, ‘Pluto: Not Yet Explored’ stamp served as a rallying cry for many who wanted to mount this historic mission of space exploration," said SwRI’s Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons lead scientist. Stern unveiled the new stamps at the first-dayof-issue ceremony at the World Stamp Show in New York City. And in July, the stamp aboard the spacecraft received a Guinness World Record for the furthest distance traveled by a postage stamp, having traveled more than 3 billion miles to Pluto and beyond.

The souvenir sheet of four stamps contains two new stamps appearing twice — an artist’s rendering of the New Horizons spacecraft and an image of Pluto taken by the spacecraft.

image of comet evidence of water ice

Comet 67P shows evidence of water ice clathrates that could indicate the comet formed closer to the Sun than originally thought.

Comet ice crystals

For decades, scientists have agreed that comets are mostly water ice. But what kind of ice — amorphous or crystalline — is still up for debate. Looking at data obtained by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft in the atmosphere, or coma, around comet 67P/ChuryumovGerasimenko, SwRI scientists are seeing evidence of a crystalline form of ice called clathrates.

"The structure and phase of the ice is important because it tells us a lot about how and where the comet may have formed," says Dr. Adrienn Luspay-Kuti, lead author of a paper published in the journal Science Advances. "If the building blocks of 67P were predominantly crystalline ices and clathrates, then 67P likely agglomerated from chunks of ice closer to the Sun. The protosolar nebula closer to the Sun experienced higher temperatures and more turbulence where crystalline ices could form as the nebula cooled. More pristine amorphous ices likely dominated the colder outskirts of a developing solar system."

Amorphous water ice efficiently traps large amounts of volatile compounds, which are released simultaneously upon warming. Water clathrates are crystalline structures containing gas molecules. The volatiles locked inside the water ice actually create the stable clathrate structure. These structures release gases at characteristic temperatures, depending on the gas-phase volatile within. Luspay-Kuti led an international team of cometary experts that interpreted Rosetta spacecraft data, and found that the observed outgassing pattern indicates the nucleus of 67P contains clathrates.

"Without direct sampling of the nucleus interior, evaluating the composition of the coma provides the best clues about the ice structure and, as a result, the possible origin of cometary nuclei," said Luspay-Kuti.

This research was supported by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cornell University, the French National Research Agency, Centre National d’Études Spatiales, and the James Webb Space Telescope project.

image of John Johnson and Paranamesh Chakraborty at the ITS America 2016 conference

SwRI Director Josh Johnson welcomes student essay winner Pranamesh Chakraborty to the ITS America 2016 conference in San Jose.

Doctoral candidate wins SwRI-sponsored essay contest

Pranamesh Chakraborty, a doctoral candidate at Iowa State University, won the ITS America 2016 San Jose student essay competition sponsored by SwRI. The contest encourages engineering students to help advance transportation technologies by sharing ideas and concepts in an original essay.

Chakraborty won for his essay on "Big Data Analytics and its Role in Freeway Incident Detection." This was the fifth year that SwRI has sponsored the essay contest.

"We received many outstanding essays that presented some innovative ways students are looking at transportation issues and how to address them," said Josh Johnson, a director in the Intelligent Systems Division.

In addition to a $1,000 cash award, Chakraborty received complimentary registration to ITS America 2016 in San Jose, June 12-16, including air and hotel expenses.

image of artificial muscles

Artificial muscles are estimated to be 100 times stronger than human muscles. SwRI’s first TPAM weighed less than one gram while generating more than 200 grams of force. When integrated into a model aircraft, the artificial muscle successfully actuated the rudder, replacing an electric motor.

image of artificial muscles

Click image to enlarge

Flexing some research muscle

Anatomical sciences have come a long way in the five centuries since Leonardo da Vinci used cadavers to sketch human physiology. More recently, biomechanical engineers have begun pairing cadavers with mechatronics to study the causes of orthopedic disease. But even state-of-the-art robotic technology cannot fully simulate the fluid movement of living muscles and tendons.

SwRI researchers hope to overcome these challenges using twisted polymer artificial muscles (TPAMs) to more accurately simulate joint movements. Using internal research funding, SwRI is developing TPAM-based actuators, up to 100 times stronger than human muscle, to study joint physiology.

"We want to create an artificial bicep and make it behave like a real muscle to study how it works in the body," said Andrew Moore, who specializes in robot testing and evaluation. "Our past research created a single muscle fiber. Now we will need to coordinate hundreds of muscle fibers to simulate an entire bicep."

For the next stage, Moore will collaborate with Travis Eliason, who specializes in musculoskeletal biomechanics at SwRI. Eliason’s field often relies on joint simulators that use robotic actuators to study joint disease in cadavers. However, these hydraulic joints create rigid, linear movements. Actual human movements are more fluid, thanks to muscles that wrap around joints to soften movements and absorb shocks.

"Our idea is to make artificial muscles that simulate the action of natural muscles and allow these joint simulators to create more realistic movements," Eliason said.

Using these devices, scientists could measure the complex internal mechanics of joints that may cause orthopedic disease. Long-term wear and tear on joints breaks down cartilage that cushions bones, causing osteoarthritis and debilitating pain, especially in knees.

"If we can determine the mechanics of a healthy joint, we can better understand how a disease changes those mechanics and, more importantly, how to put it back to normal," Eliason said.

image of ice age advancement and retreat on Mars


Red planet ice age

Using radar data collected by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, an SwRI-led team found evidence of an ice age recorded in the polar deposits of Mars. Ice ages on Mars are driven by processes similar to those responsible for ice ages on Earth; that is, long-term cyclical changes in the planet’s orbit and tilt, which affect the amount of solar radiation it receives at each latitude.

"We found an accelerated accumulation rate of ice in the uppermost 100 to 300 meters of the polar cap," said Dr. Isaac Smith, a postdoctoral researcher at SwRI and lead author of a paper published in the May 27 issue of Science. "Radar observations of the ice cap provide a detailed history of ice accumulation and erosion associated with climate change."

Like Earth, modern-day Mars experiences annual rotation and seasonal cycles, as well as longer cycles, that influence the distribution of ice. However, the longer cycles might be more pronounced on Mars. That’s because Mars’ tilt changes substantially — by as much as 60 degrees — on timescales of hundreds of thousands to millions of years. By comparison, the Earth’s tilt varies by only about 2 degrees over the same period.

"Because Mars has no oceans at present, it represents a simplified ‘laboratory’ for understanding climate science on Earth," Smith said. "Studying ice on Mars also is important to the future of human exploration of the Red Planet. Water will be a critical resource for a martian outpost."

image of scientists exloring Permian Basin and Austin Chalk

New views on Permian Basin and Austin Chalk

Building on the success of the Eagle Ford Joint Industry Project, SwRI is developing similar initiatives for the Permian Basin in West Texas and the Austin Chalk in South Texas. These programs will develop mechanical stratigraphic and structural geologic results that industry can apply to improve oil and gas production in these areas.

In 2015, SwRI conducted field investigations in Permian strata in West Texas to characterize mechanical properties, tectonic settings, and deformation mechanisms such as fracture types and orientations. Results include regional maps showing fractures, faults, and folds, as well as the tectonic framework important to well planning and performance. These will help the oil and gas industry plan horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to tap shale formations.

"We help the energy industry understand geology to improve the likelihood of success before investing millions of dollars into drilling thousands of feet of lateral wells," said Dr. David A. Ferrill, a director in SwRI’s Geosciences and Engineering Division. "The conventional wisdom is that you can drill anywhere in the Permian and it will produce oil, but that’s not the case with drilling in unconventional reservoirs. Natural fractures and other structures vary significantly throughout the basin, which influences the effectiveness of the lateral wells."

SwRI has begun a similar effort to study the geological formation known as the Austin Chalk, which overlies the Eagle Ford Formation. Historically, Austin Chalk has been exploited as a conventional fractured reservoir, producing oil and gas using horizontal drilling. Producers are starting to use hydraulic fracturing technology to exploit the Austin Chalk as a hybrid unconventional reservoir.

SwRI is investing internal resources to conduct field investigations of Austin Chalk outcrops to improve understanding of mechanical layering and natural deformation. Using this research, SwRI will develop training courses and industry-funded research to help energy companies understand the Austin Chalk and optimize well placement and stimulation programs.

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 10 technical divisions.