SAN ANTONIO – Scientists gathered for their 70th annual meeting Monday at the Southwest Research Institute and presented a host of current projects.
From the search for alien life, to the secrets of how the solar system began, there's a lot going on at SwRI.
After discovering a jagged surface of frozen methane and nitrogen on Pluto's surface in July 2015, the New Horizons satellite is now hurtling towards the farthest reaches of our solar system at 1 million miles per day to answer, in part, the question of where we come from.
The goal is to see a strangely shaped, 20-miles-across Kuiper belt object up close for the first time on Jan. 1, 2019.
"This object has likely been undisturbed where it lives in the outer solar system since the birth of our solar more than four billion years ago. It really is a link to the distant past," said SwRI scientist Mark Buie.
From implantable drug delivery to the use of high-power impulse plasma, to robots measuring fuel economy, it's just one of the projects creating buzz.
For scientists focused on the "great beyond," it's definitely a practice of patience.
It took New Horizons more than nine years to get to Pluto, and it will take another 3 1/2 years to get to the Kuiper Belt.
In another tract, a possible mission to search for life on one of Saturn's moons will have to start from Earth.
Their satellite orbiting Saturn just completed its mission (meaning it burnt up in Saturn's atmosphere), but after 10 years of data, scientists want to go back to one of Saturn moons, Enceladus.
Researchers found hot, hydrothermal vents in the oceans, a possible sign of life.
"When scientists first discovered hydrothermal vents in the late 1970s on the Earth, they were astounded to find teeming ecosystems, so there were bacteria and other microorganisms growing on chemicals that were provided by the vent fluids, and then feeding on those microbes were shrimp and other macroscopic, big, animal life," said SWRI planetary scientist Christopher Glein. "So it was quite incredible, and we think that ultimately at the base of this, you need an energy source, and that's what's provided by these hydrothermal vents."
SWRI wants to send another satellite to study the plumes the vents give off for bio-markers.
Scientists don't know what they will find, but getting there will surely be astronomical to watch.
"We want to just try to answer this basic question: 'Was there a second origin of life anywhere in the solar system or universe?' And so that's, even if there are microbes, that's scientifically astounding," said Glein.