Instrument Development

Image: SwRI has developed instruments for both NASA and ESA space missions. Shown here is one of the SwRI-built auroral plasma sensors for NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter.

SwRI has developed instruments for both NASA and ESA space missions. Shown here is one of the SwRI-built auroral plasma sensors for NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter.

A traditional strength of the Space Science Department is the design and fabrication of instruments for the in-situ measurement of space plasmas, the dilute ionized gases that populate the immediate space environments of the Earth and other solar system bodies as well as interplanetary space. Southwest Research Institute (SwRI)-provided plasma instruments now flying include the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (CAPS) on board NASA’s Cassini Saturn Orbiter, the Ion Electron Spectrometer (IES) on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta comet mission, the Solar Wind at Pluto (SWAP) instrument on the SwRI-led New Horizons mission to Pluto, and the Jovian Auroral Distributions Experiment (JADE) on the recently launched Juno probe to Jupiter.

The department is building the Hot Plasma Composition Analyzers (HPCAs) for NASA’s four-spacecraft Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, for which SwRI leads the science investigation. The HPCAs solve a major problem in space-borne mass spectrometry by using a novel, SwRI-patented RF system to separate light and heavy ions before injection into the mass analysis system. Also being built is the Strofio neutral mass spectrometer, part of a suite of particle instruments to be flown on ESA’s BepiColombo Mercury orbiter. Instead of plasmas, Strofio will measure the neutral particles ejected from Mercury’s surface to form the planetary exosphere.

SwRI has been at the forefront of the use of innovative remote-sensing techniques for the study of solar system plasmas. The SwRI-led Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) mission employed energetic neutral atom (ENA) and ultraviolet imaging techniques that render the normally invisible plasmas of Earth’s inner magnetosphere visible. ENA imaging techniques similar to those used on IMAGE are employed on the SwRI-led Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission as well as on the dual-spacecraft TWINS mission, for which SwRI provided IMAGE-heritage neutral atom imagers. While TWINS looks inward at Earth’s magnetosphere, IBEX looks outward, to the remote region where the supersonic solar wind encounters the Local Interstellar Medium.

SwRI is also a leader in the design and fabrication of ultraviolet (UV) imaging spectrometers for the study of planetary and cometary atmospheres. SwRI-built “Alice” UV instruments are flying on Rosetta, New Horizons, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Juno.

Susan Pope, Director

Instrument Development Technical Strengths

  • Instrument conceptual development
  • Systems engineering
  • Microprocessor and digital design
  • Analog design
  • Real-time embedded software development
  • Mechanical and electrical fabrication
  • Instrument integration and test
  • Environmental testing
  • Spacecraft integration support
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Southwest Research Institute® (SwRI®), headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, is a multidisciplinary, independent, nonprofit, applied engineering and physical sciences research and development organization with 9 technical divisions.