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Dynamic Activity on Martian Sand Dune
An SwRI scientist examined 11 Mars years of image data to understand the seasonal processes that create linear gullies on the slopes of a giant Martian sand dune.
Courtesy of NASA/JPL/MALIN SPACE SYSTEMS (CTX) & NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA (HiRISE)
In some early spring images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, SwRI’s Dr. Cynthia Dinwiddie noticed airborne plumes of dusty material associated with the linear gullies on the sand dune’s downwind slope. These clues point to active processes involving chunks of frozen CO2, or dry ice, sliding down the sand dune, kicking up sand and dust along the way.
Russell Crater on Mars is home to the largest known sand dune in the solar system, providing a frequently imaged locale to study modern surface activity on the Red Planet.
“For two decades, planetary scientists have had many ideas about how and when very long, narrow gullies formed on frost-affected sand dunes on Mars,” said Dinwiddie, a principal scientist in SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division. “Initially, scientists thought linear dune gullies were remnants of an ancient time when the climate on Mars supported liquid water on its surface. Then, repeat imaging showed that changes were happening now, when Mars is cold and arid.”
Imagery showing bright CO2 ice blocks at rest in dune gullies suggests a causal relationship between the blocks and the gullies. Research has shown that in the winter and early spring, slabs of translucent CO2 ice allow solar radiation to heat dark sand below, causing some ice to transition to gas.
“This latest research offers compelling new evidence that venting CO2 gas dislodges CO2 ice blocks, expelling sand and dust,” Dinwiddie said. “The slabs slide down the slope, carving and modifying dune gullies.”
“While trace amounts of seasonally condensed water are present, it behaves like an innocent bystander, not actively participating in the processes,” said coinvestigator Dr. Tim Titus of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Read a Geophysical Research Letters paper about this research, which has been funded to continue for three more years, at https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2020GL091920.
PUNCH Reaches Milestone, Launches New Initiative
The Polarimeter to UNify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH) mission achieved an important milestone, passing NASA’s Preliminary Design Review (PDR) of its spacecraft and payload experiments. The mission also launched a new associate investigator initiative to encourage young career scientists to participate in the SwRI-led mission. PUNCH aims to integrate understanding of the Sun’s corona, which is visible during total solar eclipses, with the “solar wind” that fills the solar system.
The solar wind, a supersonic stream of charged particles emitted by the Sun, fills the heliosphere, the bubble-like region of space encompassing our solar system. Its boundary, where the interstellar medium and solar wind pressures balance, demarks the end of the Sun’s influence.
“Passing PDR gets us one step closer to launch, verifying the design options, interfaces and verification methods for the mission,” said PUNCH Principal Investigator Dr. Craig DeForest of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division.
SwRI’s Ronnie Killough, PUNCH project manager, elaborated on the challenges the mission had to overcome. “PUNCH has had to conduct the entire preliminary design remotely — this is possibly an unprecedented accomplishment for a NASA mission and a testament to the strength and resiliency of the PUNCH team.”
PUNCH is a constellation of four small suitcase-sized satellites scheduled to launch in 2023 into a polar orbit formation. One satellite carries a coronagraph, the Narrow Field Imager, that images the Sun’s corona continuously. The other three each carry SwRI-developed WFI wide-angle cameras, optimized to image the solar wind. These four instruments work together to form a field of view large enough to capture a quarter of the sky, centered on the Sun.
“Just as in astronomy when a new telescope like Hubble opens a new window on the universe, PUNCH’s four satellites are going to visualize a mysterious process, imaging how the solar corona transitions into the solar wind,” said Dr. James L. Burch, vice president of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division. “As an authority in heliophysics research, SwRI is not only leading the science of this mission but also building the spacecraft and three of the four sensors designed to let us see, for the first time, the birth of the solar wind.”
The PUNCH mission recently selected four early career scientists as associate investigators to pursue solar science under the mentorship of senior PUNCH science team members.
“We instituted this program to recognize and encourage young scientists to explore problems that support and enhance PUNCH mission science,” DeForest said. “In addition to lending their unique expertise to the team, we hope the associate investigators will act as liaisons, communicating PUNCH science to the broader solar research community — and community needs back to the project.”
The associate investigators appointed are Dr. Raphael Attie, a NASA researcher and assistant professor at George Mason University; Dr. Bea Gallardo-Lacourt, a post-doctorate researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center from Universities Space Research Association; Chris Gilly, a graduate research assistant from the University of Colorado Boulder; and Dr. Elena Provornikova, who is on the senior research staff at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
SwRI Collaborates on Bioscience Projects
Courtesy of SwRI/PROTEIN DATABANK (RCSB.ORG), ENTRY 6LU7
Collaborative teams that include SwRI staff received two of six recently awarded San Antonio Medical Foundation (SAMF) bioscience grants. SwRI, in collaboration with UT Health San Antonio and University Health System, received a nearly $200,000 grant to develop machine learning algorithms for cancer detection. A team from SwRI, UT Health San Antonio, The University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas Biomedical Research Institute also received a grant of nearly $200,000 for its work to identify drug molecules that interfere with the entry of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, into human cells.
A team including Hakima Ibaroudene, a program manager, and David Chambers, a principal engineer, in SwRI’s Intelligent Systems Division is developing cancer detection algorithms using artificial intelligence (AI) to improve the speed and accuracy of cancer diagnosis and treatment, leading to better outcomes for patients. AI involves training a computer to recognize patterns and make predictions. Researchers will focus on follicular lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Philadelphia chromosome-negative myeloproliferative neoplasms, malignancies caused by mutated bone marrow stem cells. They are training an algorithm to quantify immune cells and proteins expressed by these cancer cells, eliminating the guesswork for pathologists and providing information about tumor characteristics to guide treatment.
“AI can improve diagnosis and prognosis by analyzing patterns that may be overlooked or are not easily visible to the pathologist,” Ibaroudene said. “It allows a deeper analysis of statistics across sets of images and more precisely quantifies cells and their attributes. The ultimate goal is to give the patient the best chance for successful treatment.”
Dr. Jonathan Bohmann, a staff scientist in SwRI’s Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Division, jointly leads a team identifying drug compounds that thwart SARS-CoV-2. The highly infectious virus spreads by entering host cells. Using SwRI’s Rhodium™ virtual screening software to survey 2 million drugs, the team is looking for compounds that interrupt the binding action between the virus protein and host cells to prevent infection.
“I am eager to be a part of this critical collaboration to identify drug molecules that interrupt the virus’ attack on human cells,” Bohmann said. “The goal of this research is to develop sets of candidate drug compounds that stop the virus’ entry process. The SAMF funding allows us to focus on this piece of the puzzle and gather vital data, which will move us into safety testing, the next phase of study.”
The nonprofit San Antonio Medical Foundation awarded six grants totaling more than $1 million in this round of funding from a pool of 44 applicants. Grant proposals were selected based on collaborative effort, how well the projects leverage the strengths of each institution, and whether the work will raise the national and international research profile of the San Antonio bioscience community
Intelligent Transportation Advances, Initiatives
SwRI, a national leader in intelligent transportation systems (ITS), is launching new initiatives in Tennessee and Pennsylvania. Our ActiveITS advanced traffic management system software already covers more than 10,000 miles of roadways across the United States.
We are collaborating with Vanderbilt University to develop machine learning algorithms to help the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) coordinate traffic management and incident response in the rapidly growing Nashville region. The project will use artificial intelligence to enhance an integrated corridor management (ICM) system, using software and systems to promote smart mobility and improve collaboration among various transportation entities.
“SwRI’s ICM solutions fuse data from freeways, surface streets and transit systems to help balance traffic flow and improve performance of the entire corridor,” said Samantha Blaisdell, a program manager at SwRI.
Integrated corridor management (ICM) is making its way out of the laboratory and hitting the road following two decades of research led by the Federal Highway Administration. ICM systems manage freeways and arterial roadways with dynamic lane control, speed harmonization, traffic signal control, ramp metering, demand management and other strategies. Deployment, however, has been limited by reliance on conventional traffic simulation modeling, which can be cost-prohibitive due to the time and resources required to develop and maintain traffic models.
Using artificial intelligence instead of simulation models, the system will learn from and mimic operator behavior and decision making. The smart ICM system accelerates accident response and mitigation by rerouting traffic around problem areas quickly and efficiently while ensuring state and local agency collaboration.
“SwRI’s TDOT research aims to overcome the roadblocks of ICM traffic modeling by using artificial intelligence algorithms to speed up the analysis of traffic,” said SwRI’s Clay Weston, who is leading the project through a TDOT grant funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation. “After training the system using traffic patterns, the algorithms will be able to recommend alternative routes in real time, taking advantage of high-capacity urban roads and surface streets.”
Farther to the northeast, SwRI recently began supporting, maintaining and enhancing Pennsylvania’s statewide Advanced Traffic Management System (ATMS), supporting PennDOT roadway management. Activities include launching two new initiatives to implement variable speed limits and queue detection and warning systems along I-76, a particularly congested stretch of highway in the Philadelphia area.
Serving roughly 130,000 vehicles per day, this road had 2,580 crashes between 2015 and 2019, highlighting the need to address congestion-related incidents. The goal is to improve traffic flow to reduce stop-and-go conditions and the potential for rear-end crashes. In April, variable speed limit signs began adjusting limits between 35 and 55 miles per hour based on real-time traffic conditions.
“SwRI has been working on variable speed applications for over 15 years, developing the algorithms needed to manage traffic in real time, enhancing driver safety and corridor efficiency,” said Dan Rossiter, an assistant program manager at SwRI. “We have researched and implemented similar systems in Texas and Florida.”
This is just the first phase of a long-range, comprehensive multimodal transportation management plan designed to enhance travel and safety. SwRI will help PennDOT implement additional active traffic management strategies, modernize traffic signal systems and plan a flexible travel lane to improve traffic flow during peak travel times.
SmallSat Added to NASA Catalog
NASA has selected SwRI’s 100 kg-class small satellite platform to be listed in the Rapid Spacecraft Development Office (RSDO) IV catalog used by the U.S. government to rapidly contract for flight-proven spacecraft. The Southwest Space Platform-100 (SwSP-100) is now available through the $6 billion, indefinite delivery/ indefinite quantity (IDIQ) Rapid Spacecraft Acquisition IV contract.
According to one industry forecast, as many as 11,600 small satellites — defined in this case as satellites with masses under 500 kilograms — will be placed in orbit between 2018 and 2030, an average of nearly 1,000 per year. Rapid IV contracts serve as a fast and flexible means for the government to acquire spacecraft and related components, equipment and services in support of NASA missions and/or other federal government agencies. The spacecraft designs, related items and services may be tailored, as needed, to meet the unique needs of each mission.
“Being selected for the RSDO IV catalog is a major milestone for the SwRI spacecraft development program,” said Michael McLelland, executive director of SwRI’s Space Systems Directorate. “Our strong heritage in all phases of science and technology development missions, combined with our collaborative approach to working with customers, makes us an excellent choice as a spacecraft provider for the unique missions developed under RSDO.”
Under the RSDO multiple-award IDIQ contracts, SwRI can provide spacecraft and related services that include delivery-on-orbit. The SwSP-100 is a versatile spacecraft platform designed to accommodate a range of missions and their payloads.
“SwRI’s SwSP-100 will be listed along with our smaller CYGNSS-based SwSP-35 platform, which was added to the RSDO catalog in 2020,” said Randy Rose, technical lead for SwRI’s RSDO program. “The combination of SwRI’s mission-centric focus and our clients’ needs for rapid response is the basis for the SwSP-100 spacecraft. We don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Biomechanics Joint Industry Project Launched
SwRI has launched a joint industry project to advance markerless 3D analysis of biomechanics for sports and medical applications.
The Markerless Motion Capture Joint Industry Project (M2CJ) will leverage SwRI-developed BIOCAP™ technology. BIOCAP measures human motion using machine vision, artificial intelligence (AI) deep learning, sensor fusion and biomechanical modeling. Professional and collegiate sports teams, in addition to military and medical personnel, have used BIOCAP to optimize human performance.
“M2CJ will enable cost-effective precompetitive research and system development through a collaborative forum,” said Kase Saylor, codeveloper of the BIOCAP system. “Industry professionals can improve insights with BIOCAP, one of the most accurate markerless biomechanics tools available.”
Markerless motion capture leverages computer vision algorithms to circumvent the tedious process of attaching physical body markers to a human subject to capture 3D motion data for biomechanical analysis in research, clinical and sport science applications.
BIOCAP is portable and features a user-friendly graphical interface. It uses off-the-shelf cameras and custom machine learning algorithms to quantify musculoskeletal biomechanical performance related to walking, running, sports and other precise physical movements.
“BIOCAP is a highly accurate technology that uses biomechanically informed models instead of the more commonly used animation-based posed model approach,” said Dr. Dan Nicolella, who codirects SwRI’s Human Performance Initiative and leads biomechanical research for the Institute. M2CJ will focus on precompetitive technology development, leaving the analytics to participants and their respective organizations.
“The program will bring together a community of professionals to facilitate sharing participant experiences and insights as well as receiving early knowledge of new technological developments in markerless biomechanics analysis,” Nicolella said. “This will give participants the confidence and expertise to further develop their own advanced, proprietary analytics."
Fracking With Foam
SwRI has completed a pilot-scale facility to create and test natural gas foam as a safe, stable alternative to water for hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.” The six-year Department of Energy project shows that natural gas foam can be generated on site at fracking locations, using commercially available products.
Fracking involves injecting high-pressure fluids into deep wells to fracture rock formations and stimulate the flow of oil and natural gas. This process typically requires millions of gallons of water, plus injecting sand and chemicals into these fractures to enhance production. The natural gas byproduct is typically burned off, creating carbon emissions.
“Fracking doesn’t always occur near water resources, so the water has to be trucked in,” said Griffin Beck, the project’s principal investigator. “That process is time-consuming and can wreak havoc on local roads and related transportation infrastructure, not to mention the tens of millions of gallons of water consumed by the fracking process. Natural gas is available right there, on site.”
Additionally, water can hinder reservoir production in clay, which swells in contact with water, blocking oil flow. In 2014, the SwRI team began exploring creating natural gas foam and using it as an alternative to water in the fracking process.
The team used standard compressors to efficiently pressurize natural gas, then mixed it with water to create foam, slashing the amount of water needed for fracking by 80%. After demonstrating that foam could be created on site as an additional step to the fracking process, the team created an apparatus capable of supplying high-pressure foam to a fracture test stand.
The foam can carry sand particles into fractures as efficiently as pressurized water while also producing less swelling in clay environments and possibly increasing production rates. Models indicate a 25% improvement in foam-based oil production. Beck hopes to see the foam method eventually tested in the field.
Next-Generation Automotive Technology
The U.S. Department of Energy awarded SwRI a three-year, $5.25 million contract extension to continue developing its cutting-edge connected and automated vehicle (CAV) technologies that help passenger vehicles operate more efficiently, reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions.
The project is the second phase of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy’s Next-Generation Energy Technologies for Connected and Autonomous On-Road Vehicles (NEXTCAR) program. Phase I focused on developing CAV technologies for all vehicle classes — including cars, trucks and buses — with the goal of reducing energy consumption by 20%. Phase II will build on these goals, integrating technology into light-duty vehicles with Level 4 automation, which allows vehicles to perform all driving operations autonomously with optional human override, to reduce energy consumption by 30%.
“We are excited to have the opportunity to continue developing this technology to optimize vehicle efficiency,” said Scott Hotz, assistant director of the Automotive Propulsion Systems Department. “It will provide enormous benefits to the automotive industry, and more importantly, to the public, by lowering energy consumption and reducing carbon emissions.”
During the first phase, SwRI demonstrated a 20% energy consumption improvement in real-world driving conditions using eco-routing, eco-driving and power-split optimization control algorithms.
“Vehicle connectivity and automation are already being used to effectively improve vehicle safety and driver convenience,” said Sankar Rengarajan, manager of SwRI’s Powertrain Controls Section. “We tapped into those existing data streams and put the information to use in a new way to help us achieve a 22% gain in fuel efficiency.”
In the second phase, SwRI will expand those control strategies. Eco-driving helped the human driver save 10% by making smarter decisions based on traffic information available through connectivity. With the advanced perception and actuation precision of a Level 4 autonomous vehicle, SwRI will expand the eco-driving framework, optimizing for multi-lane dynamics and further reducing energy consumption.
New Timeline for Mars Terrains
An SwRI scientist has updated Mars chronology models to find that terrains shaped by ancient water activity on the planet’s surface may be hundreds of millions of years older than previously thought. This new chronology for Mars, based on the latest dynamical models for the formation and evolution of the solar system, is particularly significant as NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance rover conducts its mission on the Red Planet.
Unlike on Earth, where terrains are commonly dated using the natural radioactivity of rocks, scientists have largely constrained the chronology of Mars by counting impact craters on its surface.
Courtesy of NASA/JPL-CALTECH/SwRI/MSSS/JHU-APL
“The idea behind crater dating is not rocket science; the more craters, the older the surface,” said Dr. Simone Marchi, who published a paper about these findings in The Astronomical Journal. “But the devil is in the details. Craters form when asteroids and comets strike the surface. The rate of these cosmic crashes over the eons is uncertain, hampering our ability to convert crater numbers to terrain ages. I took a fresh look at this and built on recent developments in the way we understand the earliest evolution of the solar system.”
Scientists have used radiometric ages of lunar rocks brought back by the Apollo missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s to calibrate a lunar crater chronology. This lunar chronology is then extrapolated to Mars. The new model improves upon how the critical Moon-to-Mars extrapolations are done.
“For this paper, I looked particularly at the Jezero Crater because that is the landing site for the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover,” Marchi said. “These surfaces could have formed over 3 billion years ago, as much as 500 million years earlier than previously thought.”
Subsurface Oceans May Be Conducive To Life
One of the most profound discoveries in planetary science over the past 25 years is that worlds with oceans beneath layers of rock and ice are common in our solar system. Such worlds include the icy satellites of the giant planets, like Europa, Titan and Enceladus, as well as distant planets like Pluto.
SwRI’s Alan Stern thinks the prevalence of interior water ocean worlds (IWOWs) in our solar system suggests they may be common in other star systems as well, vastly expanding the conditions for planetary habitability and biological survival over time.
Courtesy of NASA/JPL-CALTECH/SwRI/MSSS/JHU-APL
Worlds with surface oceans, like Earth, must reside in a relatively small “Goldilocks” zone that is neither too hot nor too cold to preserve those oceans. However, IWOWs are found at a wide range of distances from their stars, greatly expanding the number of habitable worlds likely to exist across a galaxy.
Planets like Earth with habitable surfaces face many threats to life, ranging from asteroid and comet impacts to radiation from stellar flares, to nearby supernova explosions and more. Potentially habitable oceans of IWOWs, meanwhile, are protected by a thick roof of ice and rock. “Interior water ocean worlds provide more environmental stability,” Stern said.
If such worlds are the predominant abodes for life in the galaxy, and if intelligent life arises in them — both big “ifs,” Stern emphasizes — then IWOWs may also help crack the so-called Fermi Paradox. Posed by Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi in the early 1960s, the Fermi Paradox questions why we have not discovered evidence of life if it’s prevalent across the universe.
“The same protective layer of ice and rock that creates stable environments for life also sequesters that life from easy detection,” Stern said.
Moons that harbor oceans under a shell of ice, such as Europa and Titan, are already the targets of NASA missions to study the habitability of these worlds.
Expanded Antenna Analyses
To meet the increasing interest in antenna and related services, SwRI’s Defense and Intelligence Solutions Division is expanding office space and enlarging high-bay laboratory facilities. The division is also augmenting and improving the Institute’s antenna measurement facility to automate precision antenna measurements at extended frequency ranges. This project involves building new facilities including a compact range as well as a spherical near-field antenna range. Near-field testing processes are complex but can provide unexcelled accuracy in compact, controlled laboratory settings. In addition to these facility expansions, the division recently completed AS9100 quality management recertification.
SwRI’s 200-acre outdoor radiolocation testing range supports antenna, system and subsystem evaluations. The facility includes a 4,000-square-foot lab, two 70-foot-tall nonconducting towers for mast/tower-mounted antenna testing, an updated control building and this ground-level rotary test facility.
New Consortium To Target "E-Fluids"
As electric and hybrid vehicles become increasingly prevalent on roads and highways around the world, SwRI is launching a new Advanced Fluids for Electrified Vehicles (AFEV) consortium to help the industry understand the unique stresses placed on electric vehicle fluids, or “e-fluids.” Original equipment manufacturers, lubricant manufacturers and suppliers are invited to join the consortium, which kicked off May 18, to move electric vehicle powertrain advancements forward.
“Having the best lubricant for an application can allow for significant advances in hardware technology for the future,” said Peter Morgan, a program manager in the Powertrain Engineering Division. “However, the wrong lubricant can result in very expensive design decisions. As electrified vehicles continue to diverge from conventional internal-combustion powertrains, lubricant requirements are also changing. To optimize the system as a whole, we need to know more about the lubricants’ roles.”
The consortium will take a multidisciplinary approach to help solve the challenges posed by e-fluids. In addition to powertrain specialists with expertise in automotive hardware, experts in fuels, lubricants and chemistry will round out the consortium management team.
“Like all automotive applications, lubricants and hardware work together to form a complete system,” said Rebecca Warden, a manager in the Fuels and Lubricants Research Division. “Electrified vehicle fluids place a stronger importance on heat transfer properties, corrosion resistance, electrical conductivity and performance under high-speed conditions. The variety of architectures and diversity in design on the market and in development will require a different emphasis on fluid performance.”
Industry consortia programs are an economical way for companies to maximize their research dollars. Members pay an annual fee for each year of the three-year term, sharing both the costs and benefits of the research.
SwRI will suggest research topics for consideration and provide monthly presentations and progress reports. Potential areas of research include durability, oxidation control, aeration, heat transfer, electrical conductivity and fluid aging. SwRI-funded internal research projects may also complement the consortium’s research.