SSC, I2R develop unique camera
As part of its rocket testing program, engineers at Stennis Space Center came up
with a unique camera that can capture never before seen detail...

Lisa Monti
October 2016

NASA has been using high- speed video to record rocket test firings and launches
since the early days of the space program. The cameras, however, cannot capture
the extremely bright plume exhaust alongside the relatively dark test structures and
hardware without washing out the plume or leaving everything but the plume in a
dark shadow.

Today, while NASA is developing the Space Launch System, the most powerful
rocket ever designed, testing is underway on a ground-breaking camera system that
can capture multiple properly exposed images at the same time and play them back
in slow motion. The resulting video shows all areas around the rocket firing in
unprecedented quality.

Called the High Dynamic Range Stereo X, or HiDyRS-X, the system is being
developed at NASA’s Stennis Space Center through a partnership between NASA
and Innovative Imaging and Research (I2R) Corp.

I2R, founded in 2007 by Mary Pagnutti and Bob Ryan, specializes in remote sensing,
geospatial, and optics-based products and services to industry and government
customers. While the company focuses on R&D, they also provide engineering
services to improve geospatial products such as calibrating instruments and
developing custom algorithms to enhance and improve image quality.  

“Our company has been working on different varieties of high dynamic range imaging
for several years” said Ryan. The new technology captures light and dark images
simultaneously without being saturated.

Ryan said I2R has worked with HDR imaging for the Department of Homeland
Security, among other customers.

HDR imagery is available on iPhones and other devices but the I2R-NASA joint
project is in a category of its own.

“The HDR imagery we have is high speed, and has extreme dynamic range,” he said.
“The signal levels may vary by a million to one or more.”

Also, he said, the data that is gathered is far superior to other processes.

“Our data is scientific, it’s not just a pretty picture. The digital numbers that describe
the brightness of the data can be related directly to a radiometric standard.” The
data can be used to estimate temperatures and look at engine performance
fluctuations and any instabilities that may be a sign of a potential problem.  

The video is in color and is calibrated so the processed data is of the highest
engineering quality.
“That is very valuable when you’re trying to do quantitative work,” Ryan said.

The system can also record high speed data for tens of minutes, not just seconds
like previous systems. “So we can record long events at HD quality imagery video
standards.”

Ryan said the HiDyRS-X project began as part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission
Directorate’s Early Career Initiative, designed to give young engineers the
opportunity to lead projects and develop hardware alongside leading innovators in
industry. “We successfully competed for the early career initiative where NASA works
with private sector companies to mentor young engineers and scientists. We’re an
imaging company and NASA is the rocket experts so we sort of cross-pollinated to
create this type of technology.”

The HiDyRS-X project eventually was added to NASA’s Game Changing
Development program to produce its first prototype. The equipment was used to
record exhaust plumes on test firings at Stennis Space Center.

During a full-scale SLS booster test firing in June, NASA performed simultaneous
testing of HiDyRS-X to record images of the booster’s plume. Though the camera test
suffered some setbacks, officials called the results revolutionary for the detail it
provided.

When the camera footage was reviewed, NASA officials said they saw elements that
were never caught on film during an engine test.

“I was amazed to see the ground support mirror bracket tumbling and the vortices
shedding in the plume,” Howard Conyers, a structural dynamist at Stennis Space
Center and NASA’s principal investigator on the project, said in a NASA press
release following the test. Speeding up the playback provided at least one surprise.

“I was able to clearly see the exhaust plume, nozzle and the nozzle fabric go through
its gimbaling patterns, which is an expected condition, but usually unobservable in
slow motion or normal playback rates,” said Conyers.

Ryan said the HiDyRS-X system has also been used for some experimental plume
deflection technology that NASA is developing at Stennis and NASA is considering
installing the equipment on test stands to record routine rocket engine tests at
Stennis.

Future versions of the HiDyRS-X system could have stereo “so you could have a
three-dimensional look at objects.” That 3D capability would be invaluable in finding
what went wrong if an engine exploded.

There also are possible practical applications for drivers when bright sunlight
interferes with the backup camera or boat operators when bright sunlight impairs
their vision. “Our technology could work in those types of circumstances,” Ryan said.

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