Advanced science.  Applied technology.


Internal Research & Development

IR&D supports flightworthy space instruments

Since its first decade of operations, Southwest Research Institute has used part of its net income to invest in tomorrow’s innovations, broadening the Institute’s technology base and encouraging the staff’s professional growth. In the last decade, SwRI has invested more than $77 million in internal research, initiating 103 new projects for nearly $9.4 million last year alone. Internal Research & Development (IR&D) fulfills the Institute’s objective of conducting innovative activities for the benefit of industry, the government and humankind. This issue of Technology Today will focus on the success of the Institute’s IR&D program.

Investing in technology that our clients may need in the future through internal research expands SwRI’s technical capabilities and reputation as a leader in science and technology. The program also allows engineers and scientists to grow in their technical fields by providing freedom to explore innovative and unproven concepts without contractual restrictions and expectations. IR&D is frequently cited as a key enabling factor leading to new projects and completely new research arenas within the Institute, from novel antenna arrays, clean energy technology, new pharmaceuticals and vehicle systems to addressing traffic congestion and developing alternative fuels.

MARTI is one of SwRI’s IR&D success stories, initially funded in 2005 to develop vehicle automation technology. Since then, more than 20 vehicles have been automated and projects have generated around $150 million in revenue. See more about this multifaceted automated driving program today in "SwRI's Road to Automated Driving" in this issue. "Active-Vision," also featured in this issue, is a more recent success story in the intelligent transportation arena.

Internal funding has played a crucial role in the Institute’s ability to develop and evaluate flightworthy space science instruments, from completely new technology to expanding the capabilities of proven heritage instruments. IR&D supported some of SwRI’s earliest space technology, including a line of rugged spacecraft computers as well as the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer, which flew aboard the Cassini spacecraft exploring the Saturn system.

SwRI also invested in the development of a family of ultraviolet spectrometers that have flown on ESA’s Rosetta comet orbiter, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Juno spacecraft now orbiting Jupiter, and ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) to explore Jupiter and three of its largest moons, as well as NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which will launch in October of this year to focus on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Today, SwRI is an acknowledged leader in spaceflight instruments and has developed and flown instruments on dozens of NASA missions. Both overall instrument performance and proven technical readiness are key to the selection process for an instrument. This issue will feature three of the latest space instruments supported by internal research — CoDICE, MASPEX and CODEX.


With the early success of the Interstellar Boundary Explorer, which has mapped the dynamic interaction between our heliosphere and the local interstellar medium over an entire solar cycle, Southwest Research Institute used internal research funding to develop higher resolution and more sensitive technology for an expected follow-on mission. In 2018, NASA selected SwRI’s Compact Dual Ion Composition Experiment (CoDICE) as one of 10 instruments for the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission scheduled to launch in 2025. SwRI is also managing the payload and payload systems engineering for the mission, while supporting other instrument technology on the spacecraft.

Flight collimator testing

CoDICE combines the capabilities of multiple instruments into one patented sensor about the size of a 5-gallon paint bucket and weighing about 22 pounds.

IMAP will help researchers better understand the boundary of the heliosphere, a sort of bubble surrounding and protecting the solar system. This region is where the constant flow of particles from the Sun, called the solar wind, collides with material from the rest of the galaxy. This bubble limits the amount of harmful cosmic radiation entering the heliosphere. IMAP instruments will collect and analyze particles that make it through.

CoDICE combines the capabilities of multiple instruments into one patented sensor about the size of a 5-gallon paint bucket and weighing about 22 pounds. The instrument measures the distribution and composition of interstellar pickup ions (PUIs), characterizes the abundances of solar wind ions, and determines the mass and composition of highly energized “suprathermal” particles from the Sun.

The novel instrument integrates an electrostatic analyzer with a time-of-flight versus energy subsystem to simultaneously measure the velocity, arrival direction and ionic charge state and mass of ions originating from the Sun as well as from the local interstellar medium that surrounds our solar system. These measurements are critical in determining the composition and flow properties in the local interstellar medium while advancing the understanding of enigmatic properties of the solar wind and the acceleration of particles within the heliosphere.

In addition, SwRI invested internal funding to develop more effective conversion surfaces that allow the IMAP-Lo instrument to collect and analyze particles. Conversion surfaces are ultra-thin, super-smooth surfaces covering a silicon wafer that convert neutral atoms into ions to better characterize particles from outer space.

Conversion surface substrate

SwRI space scientists collaborated with materials specialists to create more effective particle detection surfaces for spacecraft instruments. Pictured is a conversion surface substrate developed specifically for the IMAP-Lo instrument.

Changing the charge of particles simplifies and enhances their measurement and analysis. SwRI space scientists collaborated with materials engineering specialists to develop novel conversion surfaces that remain super-smooth and ultra-hard over the course of sometimes decades-long missions.

When particles enter the instrument from outer space, they bounce off the conversion surface and either gain or lose an electron, making their electrical charge unbalanced. This makes it easier to increase the speed or the energy of particles to analyze mass and other properties.

The thickness of the conversion surface must be less than 50 nanometers, about 1,000 times thinner than a human hair. The surface must also be as smooth as possible — close to perfect. If the surface is too rough, particles will be slowed by energy scattering, making it more difficult to detect and analyze particle properties.

SwRI is uniquely capable of tackling this kind of challenge, with considerable expertise in both spacecraft instrumentation and thin films. Interdisciplinary collaboration and internal research investment allowed SwRI to make better, stronger conversion surfaces for IMAP-Lo, work that continues to support future missions.


This image of Europa was taken on September 7, 1996.

Courtesy of NASA/JPL/DLR

Europa is approximately 1,950 miles (3,160 kilometers) in diameter, or about the size of Earth’s moon. This image was taken on September 7, 1996, by the solid-state imaging television camera onboard the Galileo spacecraft.

The search for extraterrestrial life in the solar system, much less elsewhere throughout the galaxy, has intrigued scientists for decades. However, processes that would be recognized as indicative of life are difficult to detect. For one thing, the signs are subtle. For a spacecraft to sniff out the telltale chemicals that predict a habitable planet or moon while flying past at an altitude of hundreds or even thousands of miles, its sensors must be exceedingly sensitive.

The Cassini mission to Saturn revealed that Enceladus, the planet’s sixth-largest moon, has essentially all the ingredients needed for life, and that mission energized a pivot to the exploration of “ocean worlds,” such as Europa. Lessons learned during Cassini’s mission were applied to NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, scheduled to launch in October 2024. Europa Clipper will make dozens of flybys of Jupiter’s icy moon to determine whether the ocean below the surface could support life.

Based on what was needed for the mission to Europa, Southwest Research Institute began an internal research program to develop the MAss Spectrometer for Planetary EXploration (MASPEX) to “sniff” Europa’s atmosphere, looking for chemical compounds that would indicate that the icy moon could host life. SwRI scientists and engineers developed MASPEX through a combination of internal SwRI and NASA funding to create a multi-bounce time-of-flight mass spectrometer with a resolution and sensitivity unparalleled in spacecraft-borne instruments of this type.

MASPEX instrument electronics

Engineers integrate the electronics box for SwRI’s novel MASPEX instrument, which will sample gases in Europa’s faint atmosphere and possible plumes of materials escaping from surface cracks to determine the chemistry of the moon’s surface and internal ocean.

Led by Senior Vice President Dr. Jim Burch, MASPEX is one of nine instruments designed to precisely sample the ambient Europan atmosphere to understand the complex interactions between the moon’s interior, surface and atmosphere. A particularly tantalizing aspect of the MASPEX experiments is the possibility of flying through and sampling material released in plumes from the subsurface. Scientists can use these measurements to infer the  composition of Europa’s interior, and by extension, its internal ocean.

The concentration ratios of common volatiles such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, water, nitrogen, hydrogen, methane and simple organic compounds provide hints about habitability. The abundance of these compounds creates a record of environmental conditions in the ocean such as temperature, acidity and oxidation, which also affect how habitable the ocean is. MASPEX will analyze the abundance of these compounds in any plumes and in gas produced from the surface of Europa from processes like solar irradiation, micrometeorite impacts and radiation sputtering. In this case, scientists are specifically looking for similarities in environmental conditions to deep sea vents on Earth, where life may have first formed. These hydrothermal vents in sea floors serve as hothouses for marine life that thrive in the dark, subsisting on the chemical energy the vents provide.

MASPEX mass spectrometer

Space scientists used IR&D and NASA funding to develop MASPEX, a groundbreaking new mass spectrometer for the Europa Clipper mission to study the potential habitability of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

The novel MASPEX instrument uses a beam of electrons to bombard incoming gas molecules, converting them to positively charged particles or ions, which are then extracted into the instrument’s “drift tube” that gives MASPEX its unique baguette shape. Samples will consist of a mixture of different chemical compounds, many with similar molecular masses. A time-of-flight mass spectrometer separates these molecules by speed to determine their mass, which is determined by their composition. Because lighter ions travel faster than others, the longer the flight path the ions must cover, the more their different velocities will separate them and the greater the instrument’s resolution.

MASPEX uses novel “folded-ion optics” that provide a variable-length flight path for the ions within a compact instrument. To do this, SwRI scientists installed paired electronic devices called reflectrons that create an electrostatic field in the drift tube. The lighter the ion, the faster it moves through the field. MASPEX bounces the ions back and forth up to 800 times in the drift tube before the instrument detects them. The total distance they travel increases their difference in arrival time, magnifying their mass difference. An analogy is two siblings in a footrace. Racing across their backyard, they might finish at almost the same time. But if they run around the block, the difference in speed is easier to observe.

Flight paths of more than 500 meters are readily achievable, even though MASPEX is less than a meter long. The spectrometer also has excellent sensitivity due to an ion source that can store 200,000 ions every half-millisecond before releasing the ions into the ion optical path. Even with its great sensitivity, MASPEX has difficulty collecting enough gas to see the rarest molecules during the rapid measurements that are necessary when the spacecraft is traveling above Europa’s surface at more than four miles a second. For that, SwRI engineers incorporated a cryotrap into the instrument. This device freezes and concentrates gas samples, then uses long, slow measurements to boost the instrument’s sensitivity by a factor of 10,000. On every flyby, MASPEX will both directly sample the atmosphere and concentrate a sample of the atmosphere, using a frigid surface to trap the gas. After the flyby, this cryotrap releases the sample into MASPEX’s detectors, providing a concentrated sample of Europa’s atmosphere and effectively increasing the instrument’s sensitivity.

The groundbreaking MASPEX instrument has been integrated into the Europa Clipper spacecraft, preparing for a scheduled October 2024 launch.


Nearly two decades ago, NASA funded the development of a laser-based, time-of-flight mass spectrometer to detect elements and isotopes that could determine the age of rocks and inform the search for life in our solar system. Since then, a team of Southwest Research Institute-led scientists has leveraged IR&D funds to win multiple additional NASA grants to increase the speed and accuracy of a laboratory-scale instrument designed to determine the age of planetary samples. At the same time, the team has progressively miniaturized the instrument, called the Chemistry, Organics and Dating Experiment (CODEX), to reach a size suitable for spaceflight and lander missions.

CODEX mass spectrometer

Institute Scientist Dr. Scott Anderson stands behind the SwRI-developed laboratory prototype mass spectrometer for the CODEX instrument, which allowed the team, with IR&D support, to determine the optimal operational parameters for the instrument. The instrument has since been demonstrated with an even smaller miniature mass spectrometer from the University of Bern.

Last year that research paid off when NASA selected SwRI to lead a $50 million lunar lander/rover instrument suite. The suite, called “Dating an Irregular Mare Patch with a Lunar Explorer,” or DIMPLE, is designed to understand if the Moon has been volcanically active in the geologically recent past. The CODEX instrument is a critical component of DIMPLE, which will exploit its novel radioisotope dating technology to determine the age and composition of an anomalously young-looking patch of lunar basalt named Ina. Institute Scientist Dr. Scott Anderson leads DIMPLE as well as the CODEX instrument.

The CODEX instrument is the first-ever, purpose-built radioisotope-rock-dating instrument for use in space. Dating is a challenging process. Traditional techniques are not easily adapted to spaceflight, requiring a sizable laboratory and several months to determine age. By contrast, the entire DIMPLE payload will weigh around 110 pounds (50 kg) and run autonomously on the Moon.

CODEX uses an ablation laser to vaporize a series of tiny bits of rock samples, detecting elements directly from the vapor plume to identify its composition. Other CODEX lasers selectively pick out and quantify the abundance of trace amounts of radioactive rubidium (Rb) and strontium (Sr). Radioactive decay is a clock that ticks at an established rate. An isotope of Rb decays into Sr over known amounts of time, so measuring both Rb and Sr can determine how much time has passed since the rock formed.

CODEX group

From left, Dr. Scott Anderson collaborated with William Crain and Xiaodong Mu at Aerospace Corporation to build the miniature lasers and electronics (far left and rear) that CODEX required to enable an instrument capable of landing on the Moon.

While radioactivity is a standard technique for dating samples on Earth, few other places in the solar system have been dated this way. Instead, scientists have partially constrained the chronology of the inner solar system by counting impact craters on planetary surfaces — concluding the more craters, the older the surface. The new technology accurately determines the ages of rocks and minerals, allowing scientists to date events such as crystallization,  metamorphism and impacts.

SwRI lab studies demonstrated that CODEX can accurately date rock samples like those expected at Ina with a precision of better than ±375 million years, which is more than sufficient to situate the origin of Ina in the billions-of-years-long history of the Moon.

Ina is an enigmatic formation of unusually smooth mounds surrounded by rough troughs, all inside the central crater of a large volcano. The lack of impact craters suggests Ina is younger than other places on the Moon.

A geologically recent eruption requires unexpectedly long-lived heat sources in the lunar interior. If Ina really is as young as it appears, that means that the Moon has been volcanically active much more recently than scientists have thought. Or perhaps Ina is as old as typical lunar rocks, which indicates that the material properties of certain rocks could deceive scientists using cratering to understand the ages of planetary surfaces throughout the solar system.

If rock formations like Ina do not give rise to impact craters, or do not preserve them over the eons, then some current ideas about solar system history could be wrong.

A camera, sample collection arm and the CODEX instrument will remain on the lander, while a rover equipped with a camera and rake will scoop and transport samples back to the lander instruments for detailed study. The DIMPLE team includes The Aerospace Corporation, the University of Bern in Switzerland, Colgate University and Lockheed Martin.

DIMPLE is part of NASA’s Payloads and Research Investigations on the Surface of the Moon (PRISM) program, which will deliver multiple science payloads to the Moon through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative. CLPS is a key part of NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration plans. The science and technology payloads sent to the Moon’s surface will help lay the foundation for human missions on and around the Moon. In addition to a series of SwRI IR&D projects, the CODEX instrument has been supported by NASA’s Planetary Instrument Concepts for the Advancement of Solar System Observations (PICASSO), the Maturation of  Instruments for Solar System Exploration (MatISSE), the Development and Advancement of Lunar Instrumentation (DALI), the Planetary Instrument Definition and Development programs, and the Defense Intelligence Agency Measurement and Signature Intelligence program (DIA MASINT).

Questions about this story or Space Instrumentation? Contact Dr. Jim Burch at +1 210 522 2526.