Advanced science.  Applied technology.

Techbytes Spring 2019

Techbytes – Spring 2024


SwRI-UTSA Collborative Research

Southwest Research Institute and The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) are collaborating on two projects dealing with “felt heat” and traumatic brain injury (TBI) detection through the Connecting through Research Partnerships (Connect) Program. SwRI’s Executive Office and UTSA’s Office of the Vice President for Research, Economic Development, and Knowledge Enterprise sponsor the Connect program, which offers grant opportunities to enhance greater scientific collaboration between the two institutions.

Principal Scientist Dr. Stuart Stothoff of SwRI’s Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Division is collaborating with Dr. Esteban Lopez Ochoa of the Margie and Bill Klesse College of Engineering and Integrated Design at UTSA to study the “felt heat” of San Antonio’s historic West Side. The prevalence of paved surfaces creates an environment that feels considerably hotter than the rest of the city. Recent measurements by Lopez Ochoa showed temperatures as high as 154 F just above the pavement.

“We’re working to precisely characterize what’s going on in this unusually hot area of the city, so that eventually a solution can be found to alleviate it,” Stothoff said.

felt heat map of San Antonio's historic west side

Courtesy of SwRI/UTSA

SwRI and UTSA are installing sensors in representative locations around the West Side to measure air flow, wind speeds, relative humidity, air temperatures and dew points.

“The publicly available information about the heat measured on the West Side is satellite data, derived from visible or infrared wavelengths. While useful, it doesn’t characterize the actual felt heat,” Stothoff said. “Satellite data also doesn’t allow you to see underneath the trees, in the shade. By placing our sensors in various key locations, we can measure the temperatures people actually feel.”

Stothoff and Lopez are also considering putting sensors inside homes on the West Side and are working with the Historic Westside Neighborhood Association and the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center to connect with residents who might be willing to participate.

With the data in hand, SwRI will create an energy balance model to comprehensively evaluate the felt environment and adapt publicly available weather data to better represent ambient temperatures and overall thermal comfort on the West Side.

SwRI’s Dr. Mark Libardoni is collaborating with UTSA’s Dr. Marzieh Memar and Dr. Morteza Seidi to investigate using breath analysis to detect TBIs.

They are analyzing exhaled breath for specific biomarkers, such as metabolites, proteins and cytokines, which can be associated with diseases and human performance.

Illustration of human brain with neural connections highlighted

Courtesy of SwRI/UTSA

SwRI and UTSA are exploring using breath analysis to detect traumatic brain injury. The noninvasive technique could potentially be deployed in sports and military settings.

“Using breath analysis as a diagnostic tool is still fairly new,” Libardoni said. “Recent advances in sampling methodologies, analytical hardware and advanced data processing programs have allowed breath analysis to become a more routine analytical tool for researchers.”

While breath analysis has been used to diagnose cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, it has not yet been explored as a noninvasive method of diagnosing TBI. Roughly 50 million cases of traumatic brain injury occur each year, which can affect human performance and quality of life, especially if left undiagnosed and untreated. Repeated subconcussive exposures, which are impacts that don’t meet the threshold for a concussive impact, can be dangerous as well, leading to a higher risk of cognitive decline and neurogenerative diseases.

The project will use a gas sampling system that Libardoni developed for space research applications to collect and process the exhaled breath samples, isolating chemical metabolites for identification by a gas chromatograph coupled to a mass spectrometer.

Libardoni, Memar and Seidi believe their findings could ultimately be used in sports and military settings to immediately identify TBIs while reducing the growing burden of TBI diagnosis and management on the healthcare system.


Heliophysics Mission Selected for Phase A Definition Study

NASA has selected a new Southwest Research Institute-managed heliophysics mission focused on investigating the Sun’s middle corona — an enigmatic region of the Sun’s atmosphere driving solar activity — for a Phase A, mission definition study. SwRI’s Dr. Dan Seaton is deputy principal investigator of the proposed small explorer mission, EUV CME and Coronal Connectivity Observatory (ECCCO), led by Dr. Kathy Reeves of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA).

The mission focuses on imaging and spectroscopy of the middle corona in extreme ultraviolet (EUV) wavelengths, tracking events like coronal mass ejections (CMEs) from their origins until they leave the Sun. CMEs are huge bursts of coronal plasma threaded with intense magnetic fields ejected from the Sun over the course of several hours. CMEs reaching Earth can generate geomagnetic storms and cause anomalies in and disruptions to modern conveniences such as electrical grids and GPS systems.

coronal mass ejection

Courtesy of Dan Seaton/SwRI/NOAA

“We’ve explored the Sun itself extensively over the last few decades,” said Seaton, a heliophysicist who specializes in imaging the Sun. “With SwRI’s upcoming PUNCH mission, we’ll explore the outer corona and heliosphere, but the middle corona remains a great mystery. ECCCO will finally reveal its secrets.”

NASA’s Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH) mission, scheduled to launch in 2025, is designed to better understand how the mass and energy of the Sun’s corona become the solar wind that fills the solar system. The complementary ECCCO mission would detect, track and measure CME and solar wind outflows from, and study changes in the large-scale structure of, the corona on timescales ranging from minutes to months and years.

“ECCCO is a fascinating mission. The science is right at the center of solar physics right now, going after the ‘middle corona’ that regulates the structure of the corona and the solar wind. Its instruments and analysis build on decades of advances in data processing,” said SwRI’s Dr. Craig DeForest, principal investigator of the PUNCH mission and an ECCCO co-investigator. “We’ve had prototypes of this kind of spectral imaging data — ‘overlappograms’ — since Skylab in the 1970s. Only now do we have the technology to sort out all the information in them.”

ECCCO’s innovative high-sensitivity instruments, when trained on the middle corona, will return wide-field data that are critical to understanding eruptive events and solar wind streams. The ECCCO-I imager sees the full multi-thermal corona from the surface of the Sun out to three solar radii away from the star. The twin ECCCO-S spectrographs are designed to provide unprecedented temperature and density diagnostics from the solar disk to the middle corona.

CfA will lead the ECCCO science mission, SwRI will manage the project and its science and mission operations centers, and Ball Aerospace will build the spacecraft.

EUV CME and Coronal Connectivity Observatory (ECCCO) logo

NASA recently selected ECCCO, a CFA-SwRI collaboration, for Phase A mission development. The image above shows a coronal mass ejection (CME) forming in the corona, highlighting how ECCCO’s new, wide-field extreme-ultraviolet view of the corona will help better connect the sources of outflows from the solar corona, such as CMEs and the solar wind, to their origins near the Sun.


Moon may be Dryer than Expected

shaded region of the Moon

Courtesy of NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

With the Sun at such a low angle with respect to the Moon’s poles, sunlight never reaches the floors of some deep craters. These permanently shaded regions are some of the coldest spots in the solar system, capable of trapping volatile chemicals including water ice. New research indicates these regions are not as old as originally thought, so current estimates of water ice on the Moon may be too high.

A team including Southwest Research Institute’s Dr. Raluca Rufu recently calculated that most of the Moon’s oldest permanently shadowed regions, or PSRs, are at most around 3.4 billion years old and contain relatively young deposits of water ice. Water resources are considered key for sustainable exploration of the Moon and beyond, but these findings suggest that current estimates for cold-trapped ices are too high.

“We think the Earth-Moon system formed following a giant impact between early Earth and another protoplanet,” said Rufu, a Sagan Fellow who is the second author of a Science Advances paper about this research. “The Moon formed from the impact-generated debris disk, migrating away from Earth over time.”

Around 4.1 billion years ago, a major spin axis reorientation decreased the amount of sunlight reaching the poles, particularly in deep craters. The team used AstroGeo22, a new Earth-Moon evolution simulation tool, to calculate the Moon’s axial tilt over time. Together with surface height measurements from the Lunar Orbital Altimeter Laser data, the team estimated the evolution of the shadowed areas over time.

Colored deposits show the extent of PSRs 3.3 billion years ago (red), 2.1 billion years ago (green) and close to present-day (blue) with current Moon topography.

Courtesy of Schörghofer/RUFU

SwRI’s Dr. Raluca Rufu collaborated with Norbert Schörghofer of the Planetary Science Institute in Honolulu, Hawaii, to calculate the age of the Moon’s permanently shadowed regions near its poles. Water resources are considered key for sustainable exploration of the Moon and beyond, but these findings suggest that current estimates for cold-trapped ices are too high. Colored deposits show the extent of PSRs 3.3 billion years ago (red), 2.1 billion years ago (green) and close to present-day (blue) with current topography.

PSRs are some of the coldest places in the solar system, allowing them to trap volatile chemicals like water in the form of ice. Water ice anywhere outside of the Moon’s PSRs would immediately transform from solid to gas in the harsh, airless sunshine that falls on most of the lunar surface.

In 2009, NASA crashed the two-ton Atlas Centaur rocket body, part of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), near the south pole of the Moon. It struck the floor of Cabeus crater, creating a plume of debris examined for the presence of water and other chemicals in the lunar regolith. A shepherding satellite traveling four minutes behind the Centaur and several Earth-orbiting satellites, including the Hubble Space Telescope, monitored the impact, detecting water ice, ammonia and methane.

The work suggests that Cabeus crater became a PSR less than a billion years ago. The various volatiles detected in the plume created by LCROSS indicate that ice-trapping continued into relatively recent times.

Water is a key resource that can be used to create air and rocket fuel to sustain human habitation on the Moon. However, the findings published in Science Advances suggest estimates for cold-trapped lunar ice may be too high. NASA and other entities plan to send rovers and humans to characterize the water ice within PSRs over the next few years.


high-decibel acoustic test chamber with 6 speakers with rocket in background

Simulating the Roar of a Rocket

Powerful sound waves emitted during a rocket launch, which can perforate a human eardrum, can damage a spacecraft and its payload before reaching outer space. To simulate the harsh conditions of a rocket launch, SwRI recently added a high-decibel acoustic test chamber to its 74,000-squarefoot Space System Spacecraft and Payload Processing Facility. With six speakers that can produce up to 150 decibels, the chamber can evaluate whether a spacecraft system, particularly small satellites, can withstand the harsh blastoff conditions.

The speakers are about 3.5 feet tall and weigh 1,617 pounds. During testing, the speakers typically encircle a test article but can be moved into custom configurations, depending on application.

“These are not ordinary speakers that you’d find at a concert,” said Institute Engineer Kelly Smith, who oversees the facility. “These tests help ensure that systems don’t fail, with potentially mission-critical and financial implications.”

The system is now conducting in-house testing, which is available to external clients.









Study Points to Building Block Formation Model in Kuiper Belt

An SwRI-led study posits that 5-kilometer-long mounds dominating the larger lobe of the pristine Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth are similar enough to suggest a common origin. These “building blocks” will guide further work on planetesimal formational models.

Using data from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flyby of Arrokoth in 2019, scientists identified 12 mounds on Arrokoth’s larger lobe, Wenu, that are almost the same shape, size, color and reflectivity. The results now published in the peer-reviewed Planetary Science Journal also tentatively identified three more mounds on the object’s smaller lobe, Weeyo.

large mound structures dominating one of the lobes of the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth

A new SwRI-led study asserts that large mound structures dominating one of the lobes of the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth are similar enough to suggest a common origin.

“Similarities including in sizes and other properties of Arrokoth’s mound structures suggest new insights into its formation,” said Dr. Alan Stern, lead author and principal investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission. “If the mounds are indeed representative of the building blocks of ancient planetesimals like Arrokoth, then formation models will need to explain the preferred size for these building blocks.”

Arrokoth’s geology supports the streaming instability model of planetesimal formation where collisions made at a few miles per hour allowed objects to gently accumulate and build objects in a local area of the solar nebula undergoing gravitational collapse.

Scientists anticipate that flyby targets for NASA’s Lucy mission to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids and ESA’s comet interceptor will encounter other pristine objects. The observation will provide additional insight into the accretion of planetesimals in the ancient solar system for comparison to processes New Horizons found in the Kuiper Belt.

“It will be important to search for mound-like structures on the planetesimals these missions observe to see how common this phenomenon is, as a further guide to planetesimal formation theories,” Stern said.


A STEP Forward for Supercritical Carbon Dioxide Power Generation

The Supercritical Transformational Electric Power (STEP) Demo pilot plant, one of the largest demonstration facilities for supercritical carbon dioxide (sCO2) technology in the world, achieved an industry first by firing its natural gas heater and operating its turbine at 18,000 rpm.

Supercritical Transformational Electric Power (STEP) Demo pilot plant high bay

“This is an important step for our sCO2 demonstration plant,” said SwRI Project Manager Dr. Jeff Moore. “The STEP Demo team is thrilled to have achieved this significant milestone of integrated plant operation.”

Completed in 2023 on the SwRI campus, the $169 million, 10-megawatt facility will demonstrate and evaluate sCO2 power generation technology, which is about one-tenth of the size of conventional equipment and can increase efficiency by 10%. The STEP Demo project was built in collaboration with SwRI, GTI Energy, GE Vernova, the U.S. Department of Energy/National Energy Technology Laboratory and several industry participants.

Carbon dioxide is nontoxic and nonflammable, and when it is held above a critical temperature and pressure, it can act like a gas while having the density near that of a liquid. System commissioning for the STEP Demo pilot plant will continue in 2024. The plant’s turbine speeds will eventually reach 27,000 rpm at operating temperatures of 715 C to achieve full 10 MWe output.


Monitoring the Massive C-5

USAF C-5 Galaxy over a orange gold sky

SwRI has begun outfitting five C-5 Aircraft with Loads/Environment Spectra Survey (L/ESS) systems to capture precise aircraft usage data that would otherwise require manual input from a crew member.

The updates are a part of a five-year, $4.5 million contract with the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Center for Aircraft Structural Life Extension (CAStLE). Once installation is complete, the Institute will perform component, subsystem and system-level testing to ensure functionality. Introduced in 1969, the large military cargo carriers were designed to transport sizable freight, including other aircraft. With a 222-foot wingspan, the 247-foot-long C-5 is among the largest aircraft in the world.

“The system will support fleet management, monitoring the aircraft usage and updating inspection intervals as needed to increase aircraft availability and reduce maintenance costs in the long term,” said SwRI Senior Research Engineer Richard Lammons.

The U.S. Air Force is required to monitor usage on 20% of the C-5 fleet to assess structural health and establish usage projections, among other things. SwRI’s structural integrity work for the U.S. Air Force began in the early 1970s. Since then, the Institute has managed and developed tools such as NASGRO®, a collaboration with NASA that can analyze fracture and fatigue crack growth in structures and mechanical components.

Already installed on T-38 and A-10 aircraft, SwRI-developed flight data recording systems to help engineers understand the structural stresses associated with various flight maneuvers. SwRI has also developed specialized inspection probes including technology to inspect under bushings, a type of sleeve bearing or metal encasement used with rotating or sliding parts. The SwRI-patented magnetostrictive sensors also provide ongoing structural health monitoring for the A-10 aircraft.


‘Breakthrough’ Method for Synthesizing Nerve Agent Antidotes

SwRI has developed unique technology, enabling the safe and efficient synthesis of organophosphorus nerve agent (OPNA) oxime antidotes. SwRI’s new development integrates new purification methods while circumventing the need for dangerous ingredients traditionally associated with the development process. SwRI scientists can now successfully synthesize currently known and highly effective nerve agent countermeasures and effectively develop promising new drug candidates to treat nerve agent exposure.

A significant threat to both military and civilian populations worldwide, OPNA exposure causes an estimated 300,000 deaths each year. OPNAs are odorless, colorless chemicals found in pesticides and chemical weapons, which affect the central nervous system by interrupting signals between nerve cells. Moderate exposure can cause nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps while severe exposure can cause arrhythmias, loss of consciousness and, if not properly treated, even death.

man in personal protective gear pouring chemicals into funnel

“Overcoming the difficulties with synthesizing medical counter measures is a longstanding challenge that SwRI has been pursuing since the early 1990s,” said SwRI’s Dr. Shawn Blumberg, a lead scientist in SwRI’s Pharmaceutical and Bioengineering Department. “We recently had a breakthrough, developing an innovative manufacturing process that allowed us to develop two highly sought-after antidotes.”

SwRI is one of more than 300 industry, government and nonprofit organizations supporting the medical countermeasures sector in the Medical CBRN Defense Consortium. This sector was founded to support U.S. Department of Defense needs in areas of infectious diseases, chemical threats and other medical countermeasures for military personnel.

SwRI’s Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Division is ISO 9001:2015 certified, meeting international quality standards for product development from initial design through production and service. SwRI scientists support drug development from discovery to clinical trials in FDA-inspected Current Good Manufacturing Practice facilities.


Explaining Precious Metals in Earth’s Mantle

SwRI Institute Scientist Dr. Simone Marchi collaborated on a new study finding the first geophysically plausible scenario to explain the abundance of certain precious metals — including gold and platinum — in the Earth’s mantle. Based on the simulations, scientists found an impact-driven mixing of mantle materials scenario that could prevent the metals delivered by impactors from completely sinking into the Earth’s core during the long period of bombardment. (a) Liquid metals would sink in the locally produced impact-generated magma ocean before percolating through the partially molten zone beneath. (b) Compression causes the metals in the molten zone to solidify and sink. (c) The thermal convection mixes and redistributes the metal-impregnated mantle components over long geologic time frames.

series of three images illustrating a geophysically plausible scenario to explain the abundance of certain precious metals - including gold and platinum - in the Earth’s mantle


CYGNSS Model Goes to Washington

A model of the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) microsatellite arrived at its new home at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. CYGNSS was NASA’s first small satellite mission to remotely measure ocean surface winds and monitor the location, intensity, size and development of tropical storms to improve typhoon, cyclone and hurricane forecasting. SwRI designed, built and currently operates the constellation of eight microsatellites for the University of Michigan.

model of cygnss microsatellite on black background

“CYGNSS was at the forefront of the SmallSat revolution,” said Institute Engineer Randy Rose. “Our efforts were a significant catalyst for the SmallSat market that is forecast to reach $8.2 billion by 2026. We literally showed the world that SmallSats could be more than the educational curiosities that existed prior to CYGNSS.”

CYGNSS science data has made a significant impact on the improved accuracy of tropical storm, cyclone and hurricane forecasting. Before CYGNSS, false alarms affected the public response to warnings. CYGNSS is saving lives by enabling better storm preparedness. And the work continues. After deeming the CYGNSS satellites healthy in 2020, NASA extended the mission into 2026.

SwRI built the microsatellite model using leftover parts from the original CYGNSS spacecraft as well as engineering model components. It is expected to go on permanent display to the public sometime in 2026, following ongoing museum renovations. It will be part of the “RTX Living in the Space Age” exhibition highlighting space technology that has had a profound impact on the daily lives of people around the world yet is often relatively unknown.


illustration of QuickSounder, a new NOAA Low Earth Orbit environmental satellite

Assessing How Blended Gases Affect Infrastructure

Using its onsite full-scale reciprocating compressor loop, SwRI is evaluating the safety and efficiency of using a full-scale compressor system for hydrogen-natural gas blends with up to 20% hydrogen by volume. Senior Research Analyst Sarah Simons leads this $1.5 million Department of Energy project conducted in collaboration with the Gas Machinery Research Council.


QuickSounder Satellite to Advance Weather Forecasting

NASA and NOAA have selected SwRI to develop QuickSounder, a pathfinder for a new generation of NOAA Low Earth Orbit (LEO) environmental satellites. From LEO, microwave (MW) and infrared (IR) soundings offer higher resolution for short- and long-term weather forecasts, hyperspectral ocean imagery (e.g., harmful algal blooms) and enhanced measurements of atmospheric chemistry. Under the $47 million contract, SwRI will design, build and operate the satellite through 2029 to significantly improve NOAA’s weather forecasting abilities by delivering 99% of data within 50 minutes of collection.

QuickSounder, a new generation of NOAA Low Earth Orbit (LEO) environmental satellites

At 2.8 feet (87 cm) wide and 4.1 feet (125 cm) long, QuickSounder is slightly larger than a typical washing machine. The satellite will weigh about 750 pounds (340 kg), including its ion thrusters and xenon propellant. All spacecraft design, fabrication and testing will occur within the 74,000-square-foot Space System Integration Facility at SwRI’s San Antonio headquarters. Once complete, QuickSounder will ship to Vandenberg Space Force Base to undergo launch vehicle integration ahead of its scheduled 2026 launch. The Institute’s Mission Operations Center in Boulder, Colorado, will operate the satellite.

Developing and launching environmental satellites has typically taken a decade or more. With QuickSounder, SwRI will cut the process down to just over two years while also integrating the latest commercial-off-the-shelf “new space” technology. QuickSounder will precede and inform the Near Earth Orbit Network (NEON) program, where NASA will manage the development and launch of the next generation of MW and IR payloads. Then NOAA will take over, operating the on-orbit satellites and delivering data to users worldwide to support weather forecasting, climate monitoring and environmental observations.


SwRI Discovers Water on Two Asteroids

Using data from the retired Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) — a joint project of NASA and the German Space Agency at DLR — Southwest Research Institute scientists have discovered, for the first time, water molecules on the surface of an asteroid.

“We detected a feature that is unambiguously attributed to molecular water on the asteroids Iris and Massalia,” said SwRI’s Dr. Anicia Arredondo, lead author of a Planetary Science Journal paper about the discovery. “We based our research on the success of the team that found molecular water on the sunlit surface of the Moon. We thought we could use SOFIA to find this spectral signature on other bodies.”

composite image of molecular water on asteroids Iris and Massalia and Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)

Previous observations of both the Moon and asteroids have detected some form of hydrogen but could not distinguish between water and its close chemical relative, hydroxyl. Scientists looked at four silicate-rich asteroids using SOFIA’s FORCAST instrument and identified the mid-infrared spectral signature indicative of molecular water on two of them.

Data from Parthenope and Melpomene, two other asteroids, proved too noisy and inconclusive. However, the team took initial measurements for two more asteroids with the precise optics and superior signal-to-noise ratio of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Arredondo says the team has submitted another proposal to investigate 30 more targets using JWST in the next cycle.

“Asteroids are leftovers from the planetary formation process, so their compositions vary depending on where they formed in the solar nebula,” Arredondo said.

Anhydrous, or dry, silicate asteroids form close to the Sun while icy materials coalesce farther out. Understanding the location and composition of asteroids can tell us how materials in the solar nebula were distributed and evolved. The distribution of water in our solar system may shed light on the distribution of water in other solar systems and will help drive the search for potential life, both in our solar system and beyond.


Lucy Discovers Dinky’s Double Moon

On Nov. 1, 2023, the SwRI-led Lucy mission flew past the asteroid Dinkinesh, discovering that it hosted a satellite. As NASA’s Lucy spacecraft continued to return data acquired during its first asteroid encounter, the team discovered that Dinkinesh’s surprise satellite is itself a contact binary, two smaller objects touching each other.

“Contact binaries seem to be fairly common in the solar system,” said SwRI’s John Spencer, a Lucy deputy project scientist. “We haven’t seen many up close, and we’ve never seen one orbiting another asteroid. Variations in Dinkinesh’s brightness seen on approach hinted that ‘Dinky’ might have a moon of some sort, but we never suspected anything so bizarre!”

illustration of Lucy flying past the asteroid Dinkinesh and contact binary

Courtesy of NASA/Goddard/SwRI/Johns Hopkins APL/NOIRLab

Lucy’s primary goal is to survey the never-before-visited Jupiter Trojan asteroids. The mission team added the first encounter with this small, main-belt asteroid in January 2023. The Dinkinesh encounter served as an in-flight test of the spacecraft’s novel terminal tracking system, which keeps tabs on the target as the spacecraft buzzes past.

The system’s excellent performance allowed the team to capture multiple perspectives of the Dinkinesh system. At closest approach, the two lobes of the contact binary lined up, one behind the other, appearing as one body from Lucy’s point of view. Additional images captured after the closest encounter revealed that Dinkenesh has a double moonlet, now named Selam.

“I would have never expected a system that looks like this,” said SwRI’s Hal Levison, Lucy principal investigator. “Understanding why the two components of the satellite have similar sizes is going to be fun for the scientific community to figure out.”

Over Lucy’s 12-year journey, the spacecraft will fly by eight target asteroids with three known satellites among them, including the newly discovered contact binary. The next target is another main belt asteroid in 2025 before the spacecraft continues its journey to reach the Trojan asteroids in 2027.


EPIC Advancements

An SwRI team is working to improve and update the Elastic-Plastic Impact Computations (EPIC) code. First developed in the 1970s, EPIC offers a cost-effective tool to design and model the interactions of warheads, body armor and armored vehicles. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has funded $500,000 for the first year of an EPIC development project, with up to $3.5 million available if the project is extended for three additional years.

simulated impact of warhead on armor using EPIC

The EPIC dynamic finite element computational tool, which SwRI has developed and maintained since 2007, cost-effectively supports the design of effective warheads and armor. This image shows a simulated impact using EPIC.

“EPIC uses finite element and particle methods to simulate complex impact and explosion scenarios,” said SwRI Staff Engineer Dr. Stephen Beissel, who leads the EPIC project and has been involved in EPIC’s development since the mid-1990s. “The numerical algorithms and the material models allow EPIC to handle highly dynamic and energetic events. Through simulations with the EPIC code, engineers can perform analyses of how a particular design for a ground vehicle, ship or aircraft component would react under stress in real-world conditions.”

In 2007, SwRI took over maintenance and development of the project, opening an office in Minneapolis where EPIC’s development team joined forces with Institute staff. The current objective is to improve EPIC’s accuracy, expand the types of problems and scenarios it can address, and increase its computational efficiency when used on supercomputers and graphics processing clusters.


SwRI Celebrates First Astronaut

Dr. Alan Stern, an associate vice president in SwRI’s Space Sector, conducted internally funded suborbital research aboard the Virgin Galactic commercial spaceship Unity on Nov. 2, 2023. During the roughly 75-minute mission, first mated to its carrier aircraft VMS Eve and then horizontally launched into space, Stern tested equipment and trained for a future suborbital flight where he will conduct two NASA experiments in space.

“Dr. Stern’s flight is a first for SwRI scientists,” said SwRI President and CEO Adam L. Hamilton, P.E. “This is an important step in preparing additional SwRI scientists and engineers for space-based research in the future.”

Dr. Alan Stern holding Ultraviolet Imaging System (SWUIS), an innovative, wide-field, visible and ultraviolet imager

Courtesy of Virgin Galactic

Stern traveled 54.2 miles above the Earth, roughly 10 times higher than the cruising altitude of most commercial airliners, reaching a top speed approaching Mach 3.

During the flight, he evaluated equipment monitoring his vital signs and conducted training and risk-reduction activities in preparation for his NASA spaceflight, evaluating the spacecraft’s suitability for making astronomy observations in space. For that experiment, Stern will use the Southwest Ultraviolet Imaging System (SWUIS), an innovative, wide-field, visible and ultraviolet imager, which has flown on two Space Shuttle missions. Stern led the development of SWUIS at SwRI as its principal investigator.

SwRI’s Internal Research and Development program funded Stern’s suborbital journey, investing in his ticket to space two decades ago, and in numerous high-performance NASA F-18s operated by Stern and Principal Scientist Dr. Dan Durda.

“This first human spaceflight by a SwRI staff member was a thrilling and truly unforgettable experience, and I’m already excited about my next trip for NASA,” Stern said. “What I find even more exciting is the idea that this is the beginning of a new era for SwRI space scientists, when we can conduct research in space ourselves. I believe this is the beginning of something pivotal.”

Stern trained on numerous fighter aircraft, in a human centrifuge and on over 20 parabolic flights, and underwent intensive training at Spaceport America in preparation for his flight.


CHEDE-9 Expands Scope, Prioritizes Decarbonization

SwRI recently launched the latest phase of the transportation industry’s longest running commercial vehicle research consortium. Building on more than 33 years of research and development, SwRI’s Clean Highly Efficient Decarbonized Engines 9 (CHEDE-9) consortium expands its scope from diesel-engine-focused research to a range of internal combustion engines and hybrid solutions.

Formerly known as the Clean High-Efficiency Diesel Engine consortium, CHEDE-9 focuses on research of low- and net-zero carbon dioxide (CO2) transportation technologies for light-duty passenger vehicles, heavy-duty commercial vehicles and large power systems. CHEDE-9 will explore decarbonization technologies combining past and future research efforts with low-carbon fuels, advanced engine and powertrain systems, and life-cycle analyses.

“The future of mobility is through decarbonization,” said Chris Bitsis, an assistant director in SwRI’s Powertrain Engineering Division. “Those efforts will include advancing hybrid-electric vehicles and innovations to internal combustion using hydrogen and other fuel sources.”

CHEDE-9 leverages the most recent research from CHEDE-8 and other SwRI-led research programs, including the High-Efficiency, Dilute Gasoline Engine (HEDGE-V) and Hydrogen Internal Combustion Engine (H2-ICE) programs. Members include major engine and vehicle manufacturers along with companies specializing in fuels and lubricants and other suppliers. Consortium members share costs and provide access to more research than possible with funding from a single organization.

SwRI is home to several automotive consortia, such as the Advanced Fluids for Electrified Vehicles (AFEV) consortium, which seeks to advance industry understanding of electric and hybrid vehicle fluids, and the Electrified Vehicle and Energy Storage Evaluation (EVESE) program, which provides test data for member-selected sets of battery cells, among others.

CHEDE-9 logo


two men in personal protective equipment showing wide field imagers developed for Polarimeter to UNify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH) mission

New Milestone for SwRI-Led Solar Mission

The SwRI-led Polarimeter to UNify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH) mission passed an internal system integration review, clearing the way for a pre-environmental review ahead of its planned launch in 2025. Three of the four PUNCH spacecraft will include SwRI-developed Wide Field Imagers (pictured) optimized to image the solar wind. The dark baffles in the top recess allow the instrument to image objects over a thousand times fainter than the Milky Way.