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SwRI Boulder space research group celebrates 10 years of accomplishments

Boulder, Colo. -- September 10, 2004 -- One of the largest, most accomplished space science research groups in the United States will celebrate its tenth anniversary during ceremonies September 13-14, in Boulder. During its 10-year history, the Department of Space Studies, a remote office of the San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI®), has expanded its roster from three planetary scientists to a group totaling more than 45 scientists and support staff, spanning areas of expertise that include solar physics, stellar astronomy, astrobiology, and planetary surfaces, atmospheres and origins.

"Nothing like the Department of Space Studies has been created, from scratch, in the United States, in recent memory. Since its inception in 1994, the Boulder group has far exceeded its mission to help make SwRI a larger player in the nation's space research effort," says Dr. Jim Burch, vice president of the SwRI Space Science and Engineering Division, which oversees the department. "Their activities strongly complement and extend the already significant space research program we have long operated in San Antonio."

Research by SwRI space scientists in Boulder, performed in collaboration with scientists worldwide, has resulted in an impressive array of accomplishments. Among these is the fact that Boulder researchers lead an international team to develop NASA's New Horizons mission - the first spacecraft to Pluto, the last unexplored planet in the solar system. Managed by major partner Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the mission will study the atmosphere, geology, geomorphology, composition and temperature variations of Pluto and its moon, Charon. The spacecraft, scheduled for an early 2006 launch, will continue its journey to study objects in the Kuiper Belt.

Using sounding rockets, spacecraft observatories like the Hubble and ground-based telescopes across the world, the Boulder staff makes observations that lead to new theories on the formation and evolution of stars including the Sun, planets and moons, as well as asteroids and comets. Advanced computers enable models to numerically simulate those theories, a process that sometimes takes days, or even weeks, for fast machines to complete. Boulder researchers have successfully used these techniques to simulate how a single impact could have yielded the current Earth-Moon system and how the large satellites of Jupiter formed, to study the origin of the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud, and to date a "recent" asteroid breakup event in the main asteroid belt.

Boulder researchers also made the first telescopic discovery of a moon orbiting an asteroid and discovered the source of the high-speed solar wind flowing out from the Sun. Other research has focused on the evolution of the Moon's orbit, the nature of comets and Kuiper Belt objects, the surface of Mars and the rings of Saturn.

In addition, staff members have worked to develop instruments and participate on science teams for numerous NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) space missions, including Rosetta, Cassini, Galileo, Messenger (Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging), NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous), New Millennium/Deep Space-1, SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory), Solar-B, Mars Express, the Hubble Space Telescope and several Space Shuttle missions. Boulder researchers have also pioneered low-cost astronomy techniques using high-performance NASA aircraft and suborbital rockets.

NASA, the National Science Foundation, SwRI's internal research program and other smaller sources support this array of space research activities through competitively selected proposals.

"It's been such a pleasure to see this group grow and flower from the small seed we planted 10 years ago," says Dr. Alan Stern, executive director of the Space Science and Engineering Division and director of the Department of Space Studies. "Boulder is a wonderful location for space scientists, and SwRI provides a unique and powerful research environment." Drs. Robin Canup and Joel Parker serve as assistant directors of the department.

Boulder scientists routinely and enthusiastically share their expertise with the national and international media on various space topics and have appeared in award-winning scientific television documentaries. Staff members have also published popular books and articles and provided expert opinion at the request of the U.S. Congress on such issues as asteroid impact hazards to Earth.

EDITORS: The media are invited to contact Boulder researchers on a range of planetary topics detailed on the web at Visit the Boulder website at for more information.

For more information contact Maria Martinez, Communications Department, at (210) 522-3305, PO Drawer 28510, San Antonio, TX 78228-0510.

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