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Department of Space Studies
Background Information and Activities

Department of Space Studies
Southwest Research Institute (SwRI)
1050 Walnut Street, Suite 300
Boulder, Colorado 80302
Phone (303) 546-9670
Fax (303) 546-9687

Dr. Robin Canup, Institute Scientist

Dr. James Burch, Vice President, Space Science and Engineering (San Antonio)

Example scientific discoveries
Spacecraft mission participation
Current projects and recent discoveries
Other activities
DoSS staff

Example scientific discoveries

  • Developed a new explanation for the origin of the lunar orbital inclination; published in Nature (Dr. Bill Ward, Dr. Robin Canup).
  • Identified the type of impact capable of producing the Earth-Moon system through a single giant collision; published in Nature (Dr. Robin Canup, Dr. Erik Asphaug of the University of California Santa Cruz).
  • Discovered the origin of the axial tilt of Saturn as a result of a resonant interaction; in press at the Astronomical Journal (Dr. Bill Ward, Dr. Douglas Hamilton of the University of Maryland).
  • A new model describing the origin of the four large moons of Jupiter -- the so-called Galilean satellites -- reconciles the moons' major properties with the formation of the satellites from a disk of gas and small particles orbiting Jupiter during the very end stages of the planet's growth, published in the Astronomical Journal (Dr. Robin Canup, Dr. Bill Ward).
  • Discovered the source of the high-speed solar wind; published in Science (Dr. Don Hassler, et al.).
  • Determined the very young age of the surface of Europa, the possible ocean-bearing moon of Jupiter, using images taken by the Galileo spacecraft (Dr. Clark Chapman, Dr. Bill Merline, et al.) and theoretical studies of the orbital evolution of comets and other small bodies in the outer solar system (Dr. Hal Levison).
  • Made the first detection of argon, in surprisingly large abundance, in Comet Hale-Bopp, suggesting that it formed in the Uranus-Neptune zone (Dr. Alan Stern, et al.).
  • Using the Hubble Space Telescope, SwRI scientists discovered the only existing observational evidence of Kuiper Belt objects of the sizes occasionally seen in the inner solar system (Dr. Hal Levison, Dr. Alan Stern, Dr. Peter Tamblyn, Dr. Anita Cochran of the University of Texas at Austin). Discovered strong evidence for an unexpectedly high primordial mass for the Kuiper Belt of comets (Dr. Alan Stern).
  • Developed the best-ever maps of Pluto (Dr. Eliot Young, who used ground-based telescopic data, and Dr. Alan Stern, who used the Hubble Space Telescope).
  • Developed the theory that there should be a "scattered disk" of Kuiper Belt objects, which was later confirmed by observers (Dr. Hal Levison, et al.).
  • Found evidence for asteroids in the Oort comet cloud (Dr. Hal Levison, Paul Weissman of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory).
  • Discovered first binary Kuiper Belt Object (Dr. Joel Parker, et al.).
  • Proposed a new model in which the Kuiper Belt objects originally formed closer to the Sun and were pushed outward to their current locations by Neptune's migration, thus offering a potential resolution to difficulties in forming these objects in situ; published in Nature (Dr. Hal Levison, Dr. Alessandro Morbidelli of the Nice Observatory).
  • Developed a dynamical explanation for the origin of the newly discovered and distant solar system objects 2000 CR105 and 2003 V12 (Sedna) involving encounters with other stars; in press at Astronomical Journal (Dr. Alessandro Morbidelli of the Nice Observatory, Dr. Hal Levison).

Spacecraft mission participation

Current projects and recent discoveries

  • The highest resolution computer simulations of potential lunar-forming impacts performed to date have been used to identify the specific regions of material that contribute to the Moon; published in Icarus (Dr. Robin Canup).
  • Disk models used to study planetary origin are being applied to the origin of the large satellites of the outer planets (Dr. Robin Canup, Dr. Bill Ward).
  • Smooth particle hydrodynamic simulations are being utilized to identify planetary collisions capable of producing the Pluto-Charon binary (Dr. Robin Canup).
  • Performed laboratory experiments to simulate the surface environment of Mars and to determine the origin of the martian soil. The results showed that low temperature alteration of Martian volcanic rocks by water under present martian conditions is most likely responsible for the salty Martian soil (Dr. Mark Bullock, collaborators at the NASA Ames Research Center).
  • Co-directed an NSF-funded program for undergraduates, called "Global Climate Change and Society." Twelve students visited Boulder during the summers of 2001-2003 to work with Dr. Bullock and scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado. They studied the science of global climate changes as well as its societal impacts, philosophy, and public policy, and engaged in original research projects related to these program themes (Dr. Mark Bullock).
  • Observing cloud motions on Venus using NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The lower clouds of Venus on the night side are back-lit by heat radiation from below. Observed Venus for up to 10 nights in a row and traced horizontal winds in Venus' middle atmosphere (Dr. Eliot Young, Dr. Mark Bullock).
  • Neptune's giant moon Triton has been known to undergo mysterious, periodic reddening, possibly related to cryo-volcanism. By monitoring Triton using NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii, the staff determined that the nitrogen frosts on Triton are distributed in unexpected ways, giving scientists new thoughts about how the surface and atmosphere are coupled on Triton and on its cousin, Pluto (Dr. Leslie Young, Dr. Eliot Young).
  • The temperature of Jupiter's massive atmosphere is only partly understood. The staff led an investigation into how a type of atmospheric motion, called gravity waves, may be heating the stratosphere of Jupiter (Dr. Leslie Young).
  • Although the general features of Mars' global atmospheric motion are understood, details of the local weather, important for future missions to Mars, are not. Staff members developed a detailed weather model for Mars in order to understand small-scale convection, the creation of dust devils, and the role of clouds and topography on regional weather patterns. The team successfully predicted the winds at the two Mars Exploration Rover landing sites (Dr. Scot Rafkin, Dr. Tim Michaels).
  • Discovered that sunlight can have surprisingly important effects on the spins of small asteroids. The study indicates that sunlight may play a more important role in determining asteroid spin rates than collisions, which were previously thought to control asteroid spin rates (Dr. Bill Bottke, Dr. David Vokrouhlicky of Charles University in Prague).
  • Used the Extreme-Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope to discover solar tsunamis (also called "EIT waves"), huge propagating waves that are triggered along with coronal mass ejections and can travel the entire diameter of the sun. SwRI researchers are applying this unusual phenomenon to new studies of the solar corona (Dr. Meredith Wills-Davey).
  • Identified a recent asteroid breakup event in the main asteroid belt. Computer simulations showed that the event occurred 5.8 million years ago, when a 15-mile-wide asteroid in the main belt region shattered into numerous fragments following a collision. This observation marks the first time that an asteroid disruption event has been precisely dated (Dr. David Nesvorny, Dr. Bill Bottke, Dr. Hal Levison).
  • Found that large asteroids are gently nudged over hundreds of millions or even billions of years by the absorption and re-emission of sunlight, enough so the asteroids may eventually enter Earth orbits (Dr. Bill Bottke, Dr. David Vokrouhlicky and Miroslav Broz of Charles University in Prague, Dr. David Nesvorny, Dr. Alessandro Morbidelli of the Observatoire de la Cote d' Azurin France).
  • Computers are being used to study the evolution of climate on Earth's neighboring planets, Venus and Mars. On Venus there may have been a dramatic climate change in the past billion years. Research shows that many of Venus' mountains may have been created when its surface literally buckled in response to wide swings in its always-hot surface temperature (Dr. Mark Bullock, Dr. David Grinspoon, Dr. Scot Rafkin, Sean Solomon of the Carnegie Institution of Washington).
  • Helped to develop the “Torino Scale,” analogous to the Richter Scale for earthquakes, to help place the likelihood and seriousness of potential comet or asteroid impacts into context. The Torino Scale has recently been adopted by the International Astronomical Union. The project is further described in the current issue of Sky & Telescope magazine (Dr. Richard Binzel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Clark Chapman).
  • Participating in the first spacecraft mission to the planet Mercury since 1975. The NASA Discovery Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging Mission (MESSENGER) will carry seven instruments into orbit around the closest planet to the sun. It was launched in 2004 and will begin work in 2008 to study Mercury’s shape, interior, magnetic field, and surface. SwRI scientists will primarily study surface geology by means of craters and surface colors (Dr. Clark Chapman, Dr. Bill Merline).
  • Analyzed the crater populations on the jovian moons Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. The sparse numbers of impact craters on Europa indicate that its icy surface is very young, perhaps only 20 million years old, compared with the heavily cratered surfaces of Ganymede and Callisto. Analyses show that Europa may be geologically active and harbor an ocean of water beneath its crust (Dr. Clark Chapman, Dr. Bill Merline, Beau Bierhaus, Shawn Brooks).
  • Studying the sources and history of water in the atmosphere and crust of Mars. By studying the ratio of “heavy hydrogen” to ordinary hydrogen, scientists hope to learn if most martian water came from comets (Dr. David Grinspoon).
  • Observed, for the first time, the two-dimensional structure of the solar wind, coming from the edges of honeycomb-shaped patterns of magnetic fields at the surface of the sun. These observations, made with the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) led to a better understanding of the solar wind, the supersonic outflow of charged particles from the sun (Dr. Don Hassler).
  • Working with Jet Propulsion Laboratory artificial intelligence mathematicians and engineers to develop smart software to fly aboard future planetary missions. This work should allow future flyby and orbiter spacecraft to react in near real-time to data they collect, making decisions much like a scientist would if aboard the spacecraft (Dr. Bill Merline, Dr. Clark Chapman, Dr. Alan Stern, Beau Bierhaus).
  • Searching for small, hypothetical asteroids, called “vulcanoids,” orbiting inside Mercury’s orbit near the sun (Dr. Alan Stern, Gary Emerson, et al.). A theoretical study concluded that any vulcanoids that may have once have existed have probably collided with each other so much that they have been ground down to dust and vanished (Dr. Dan Durda, Dr. Alan Stern).
  • Developed a theory to explain the unusually small eccentricity of the planet Neptune as a consequence of its gravitational interactions with the Kuiper Belt. Neptune drives waves in the belt; the back reaction on the planet damps its eccentricity over the age of the solar system (Dr. Bill Ward, Joseph Hahn).

Other activities

  • Awarded the 2004 Dirk Brouwer Prize from the American Astronomical Society's Division on Dynamical Astronomy. The Brouwer Prize recognizes outstanding contributions to the field of dynamical astronomy (Dr. Bill Ward).
  • Awarded the 2003 Harold C. Urey Prize from the American Astronomical Society's Division of Planetary Sciences, and the 2004 James B. Macelwane Medal of the American Geophysical Union. Both prizes recognize outstanding achievements in planetary and geophysical sciences by a young scientist (Dr. Robin Canup).
  • Developed the widely used SyMBA, SWIFT, and SWIFTER orbital integrator packages for studying the orbits of solar system bodies over billions of years (Dr. Hal Levison).
  • Originated the EKO-News e-mail newsletter concerning the Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt of primordial comets (Dr. Joel Parker).

DoSS Staff

John Andrews, andrews@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Erika Barth, barth@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Bill Bottke, bottke@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Mark Bullock, bullock@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Clark Chapman, cchapman@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Alisdair Davey, ard@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Craig DeForest, deforest@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Dan Durda, durda@boulder.swri.edu
Brian Enke, benke@boulder.swri.edu
Alisha Gorbet, alisha@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Robert Grimm, grimm@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. David Grinspoon, grinspoon@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Don Hassler, hassler@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Kandis Lea Jessup, jessup@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Dave Kaufmann, kaufmann@boulder.swri.edu
Derek Lamb, derek@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Hal Levison, hal@gort.boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Paul Meade, paulm@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Bill Merline, merline@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Tim Michaels, tmichael@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Robin Canup, robin@boulder.swri.edu
Diane Miller, diane@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. David Nesvorny, davidn@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Catherine Olkin, colkin@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Joel Parker, joel@boulder.swri.edu
Joe Peterson, joe@boulder.swri.edu
Laurel Rachmeler, laurel@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Scot Rafkin, srafkin@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. John Spencer, spencer@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Peter Tamblyn, ptamblyn@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Dirk Terrell, terrell@boulder.swri.edu
Jeanette Thorn, jthorn@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Bill Ward, ward@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Meredith Wills-Davey, meredith@boulder.swri.edu
Stacey Wojtowicz, stacey@boulder.swri.edu
Jared Workman, workmanj@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Eliot Young, efy@boulder.swri.edu
Dr. Leslie Young, layoung@boulder.swri.edu

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February 20, 2014