San Antonio researchers are playing a key role in understanding the mysteries that abound in the final frontier: space.

A livestreamed web event hosted by local tech advocacy group Tech Bloc on Thursday evening featured San Antonio and Texas scientists who are studying everything from faraway planets in other solar systems to Earth’s moon. 

The event virtually brought together engineers and scholars from NASA, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), and the University of Texas at San Antonio. 

“I think it’s important to understand that Texas has had a long history in the aerospace industry,” said Dirk Elmendorf, co-chair of Tech Bloc’s board. “San Antonio has really played a long role in that world.”

Speakers discussed key projects that San Antonio and Texas scientists are a part of, such as two SwRI projects to build tools that will help scientists learn more about Jupiter’s moons and a Houston-based NASA project to build a space station that will orbit Earth’s moon.

Kurt Retherford, a planetary scientist at SwRI, explained how the local institute is playing a central role in learning more about several of Jupiter’s natural satellites. 

SwRI is overseeing two projects that will aid in the study of the larger moons of Jupiter, a gas giant that has 79 known moons. Retherford is one of the leading scientists on these projects. 

One involves constructing the Europa Ultraviolet Spectrograph, which will observe the icy moon Europa; the other project, the JUICE Ultraviolet Spectrograph, will study Europa and Ganymede. A spectrograph is a device that splits light into different wavelengths or colors and helps tell scientists the chemical makeup of an object. 

“The neat thing is the [Europa Ultraviolet Spectrograph] is being built right here in San Antonio,” Retherford said. 

Using the spectrograph, the scientists will aim to confirm the suspected geysers of water spouting from Europa’s surface, its atmospheric makeup, and get a close-up view of its surface.

Launching in 2024, the spectrograph will be aboard NASA’s Europa Clipper mission. The Clipper, which will carry nine specialized instruments including the spectrograph, will do a series of Europa flybys while orbiting Jupiter. 

The Clipper’s journey will take between two and six years, depending on several factors, Retherford said.

The JUICE Ultraviolet Spectrograph will provide a variety of observations of Jupiter and a handful of its moons. It will read ultraviolet light to help tell scientists more about Jupiter and its moons’ atmospheres, surfaces, and chemistry, as well as more about Ganymede’s aurora lights.

Retherford and his team are working with the European Space Agency – the European equivalent of NASA – on the JUICE project, which is set to launch in 2022 but is expected to take seven to eight years to reach Jupiter. 

“They’re expected to get to the system around the same time,” he said of both missions. “So it’s going to be great to be involved in both NASA’s mission and the European mission at the same time.”

Both missions will help researchers learn about Jupiter and its moons and whether they could potentially support life, Retherford said.

NASA Gateway Production Manager Jon Olansen joined the event to discuss how NASA scientists in Houston are making significant headway as they prepare to launch the Artemis Program, the next series of missions to the moon starting in 2024 that will prepare astronauts for traveling to Mars.

Olansen oversees the Gateway Project, a space station NASA is launching in 2023 to orbit the moon. This space station will act as a common stopover and safe haven for astronauts heading to the moon’s surface through the Artemis Program.

In preparation for the Artemis Program and further Mars exploration, NASA scientists in Houston have had to perfect automated precision landing, advanced communication, and in-space manufacturing and refueling. 

“It really sets us up … with the technologies and the capabilities to go pursue exploration – human exploration – of Mars,” Olansen said.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...