If you ever have the chance to see a space rocket launch, don’t turn it down. It is far and away the most awesome thing ever.
On August 5, 2011, my family waited in anticipation for the countdown of the launch of Juno as it began its mission to Jupiter. The countdown is not like in the movies, it’s better. And what’s even better than seeing it live? Knowing the designers and builders of the instrument who will analyze the data as they subsequently learn all about Jupiter. And the best part is that it’s happening right here, in San Antonio.
When I tell people my husband, Frederic Allegrini, studies space physics, most answer, “I didn’t know there was any place to do that in San Antonio.” Not only is there a place here in San Antonio, Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) has held a significant role in most NASA and ESA missions over the last 30 years. Sister to the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, SWRI has been a center for innovation in science and technology since its founding in 1947 by Thomas Baker Slick Jr., an oilman, rancher, and philanthropist.
Last week, on March 12, 2015, at 10:44PM, the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission (MMS) launched, a Solar Terrestrial Probe mission. Susan Pope, Program Director for Division 15 and Assistant Department Director of Space Science at SWRI, was there to see the launch after many years of development and testing.
Building an instrument to launch into space is both a sign of international cooperation and perseverance. In addition to SWRI, the partners on MMS included teams from Japan, Austria, France, Sweden, and eight universities and research institutes in the US. Global collaboration yields big results, but this takes time. When it launched last week, MMS had been in development and testing for 16 years. Instrument development began in 1999 at SWRI, and Pope became Lead Systems Engineer for MMS in 2008.
This solar terrestrial probe will study the interaction of the sun with the earth and the effect it has on the earth’s magnetosphere. MMS has four satellites, all identical so they stack on top of each other, and at 15 feet in diameter, include about 25 instruments in each. The instruments were built in multiple locations, then teams from SWRI coordinated and led the testing of the instrument suite, after which it was sent to NASA’s Goddard Space Center before going on to be readied for launch at Kennedy Space Center.
The Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) launched in October of 2008. It’s a smaller mission, but one which takes our knowledge to the limits: the limits of the solar system. The sun and the solar system are surrounded by a bubble-like area called the heliosphere, effectively the boundary of the solar system. IBEX is collecting data which maps that boundary, which is critical to understanding the cosmic rays, and the protection that boundary provides us Earthlings from those rays.
And don’t forget Pluto. New Horizons, a payload which includes seven instruments, was launched in 2006. Among those instruments is Solar Wind Around Pluto (SWAP). SWRI Scientist Dr. Heather Elliot is measuring the solar wind as it approaches Pluto, asking such questions as: How does the wind affect Pluto’s atmosphere? Is there a bow effect or a tail at the end?
Mark your calendars for July 14, 2015, when it will do a “flyby,” swinging close to Pluto and its moons.
Now back to Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. Juno is seeking to understand the origins of Jupiter, and through that information, understand more about the entire solar system. Jupiter has four larger moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. To study these icy moons, the European Space Agency will launch the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer Mission (JUICE), in 2022. Dr. Kurt Rutherford, Principal Scientist at SWRI, is the Deputy PI for JUICE’s Europa mission. In January of 2014, then-SWRI postdoctoral fellow Lorenz Roth discovered a vapor plume on Europa using the Hubble telescope, published in the journal, Science. Vapor plumes mean water. Water means the potential for life. The team has submitted proposals to include further investigations of this vapor plume as part of the JUICE mission. They await NASA approval (and funds) for this next step.
Click here to listen to NPR’s Science Friday that interviews Geophysicist Joachim Saur, lead author on the study of Ganymede’s subsurface ocean.
While these SWRI scientists explore space, they are also mentoring graduate students to become the next generation of space scientists. In 2005, the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UTSA partnered with SWRI to develop a graduate research program for students interested in space physics. Masters and doctoral-level students at UTSA have the opportunity to work directly with the scientists at SWRI. This is a unique opportunity as it allows the students to get hands-on experience working on these missions, while SWRI scientists mentor students and teach courses at UTSA. Students who have earned their PhDs through this program have gone on to work on many NASA missions, such as Joe Westlake, a student in the first class and now a scientist at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Dr. Westlake worked on MMS and was present at the launch, bringing along his kids to share the experience.
SWRI has also partnered with the Scobee Planetarium at San Antonio College, an expert planetarium with extensive displays. The one display that caught my eye, though, was a series of photos with the stories of four South Texas kids who grew up to be “rocket scientists” at SWRI. The institute boasts a plethora of internationally renown scientists, but we also have our own home-grown scientists, including Dr. Jim Burch, Valedictorian of Central Catholic High School and a 1964 Summa Cum Laude graduate of St. Mary’s University. He is now Vice President of the SWRI Space Science and Engineering Division and Principal Investigator for MMS.
Local San Antonio students may grow up to be rocket scientists one day, and if they do, they won’t have to go far from home. They can come to SWRI to explore the far reaches of our solar system, and perhaps, beyond.
*Featured/top image: Kids took part in Juno’s post-launch celebrations which took place at the Astronaut Beach House. This special place lies near the launch pads at Kennedy Space Center and has long been a refuge for the astronauts to relax in private with their families before each launch. Photo by Frederic Allegrini.