Space scientists and engineers at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) are eagerly examining data gathered during the second flight of the innovative, low-cost SWUIS imager aboard STS-93 in late-July. SWUIS (the Southwest Ultraviolet Imaging System, pronounced, "swiss"), is an innovative telescope/CCD camera system that operates from inside the Shuttle cabin. SWUIS is used to image planets and other solar system bodies in order to explore their atmospheres and surfaces in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum, which astronomers value for its diagnostic power. SWUIS was developed at Southwest Research Institute with joint funding from NASA and SwRI.
Though small, the sensitive SWUIS system has some unique attributes that make it a valuable complement to more expensive space observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope. Among these attributes are SWUIS's unusually wide field of view (up to 30 times Hubble's) and its ability to observe objects much closer to the Sun than most space observatories. This latter capability allows SWUIS to explore the inner solar system, which few other instruments can.
SWUIS, which weights just over 60 pounds, made its first flight on STS-85 in August of 1997. On that mission, SWUIS obtained over 400,000 images of comet Hale-Bopp at a time when the Hubble Space Telescope could not observe the comet because it was lost in the glare of the Sun. These images have already revealed important insights into the comet's water and dust production rates as it left the Sun on its return to the Oort Cloud of comets, 10,000 times as far away as Pluto.
On STS-93, SWUIS was operated over a period of several days by mission specialist Dr. Steve Hawley and French astronaut Michel Tognini. A SwRI flight control team led by SWUIS Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern and SWUIS Project Scientist Dr. David Slater operated from the NASA Johnson Space Center mission control in Houston.
During the mission, SWUIS observed the clouds of Venus, searched for faint emissions in the Jovian system as an adjunct to the Galileo Jupiter orbiter, mapped the Moon at ultraviolet wavelengths for the first time, and searched evidence for a hypothesized asteroid belt (called "The Vulcanoids") inside Mercury's orbit.
The instrument's principal investigator is Dr. Alan Stern at the Boulder Office of the Southwest Research Institute, based in San Antonio, Texas.
Southwest Research Institute SWUIS Flight 2 press release.
For an overview of SWUIS opperations on STS-93, click here. For an overview of the entire STS-93 mission, go to the STS-93 Shuttle Press Kit page.