Advanced Imaging


Advanced Imaging Magazine

Updated: July 8th, 2008 05:26 PM CDT

Imaging Solutions of the Year: Live Video Downlinked from Space Shuttle Discovery

Category: Space Imaging
The external tank video system camera, nestled inside the fairing, to the right of Discovery's nose.
A still frame from the 'falling foam' incident.
Sample post-processed video image, highlighting the trajectory of falling foam debris, which barely missed the starboard wing.

By Advanced Imaging Editorial Staff

Crosslink, Inc. (Longmont, CO)
Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation (Pasadena, CA)
Lockheed Martin Astronautics, Michoud Operations (New Orleans, LA)
Sony Electronics Inc., Visual Imaging Products (Park Ridge, NJ)
(Nominated by Rex Ridenoure, Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation)

The Challenge:

Since the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia in early 2003, mission controllers have wanted to visualize key events in realtime from launch through ascent and into Earth orbit. Any video imaging equipment up to the task would have to operate under extremes of vibration, temperature and pressure, while moving at nearly Mach-25 velocity.

The Solution:

Live video from aboard Space Shuttle Discovery (NASA mission STS-114, launched July 27, 2005), the first “Return to Flight” mission, was provided by a broadcast-quality, color lipstick camera. Ecliptic Enterprises disassembled and rebuilt (ruggedized) the system in a 28-step process to ensure it met the application’s demanding requirements. Engineers at Lockheed Martin Astronautics custom-designed a mechanical housing for the camera/lens assembly so it could be nestled on the Shuttle’s external tank liquid oxygen fuel line; facing aft with a view of the external tank surface, orbiter belly and starboard wing.

The video signal was routed by coaxial cable to the interior of the external tank instrumentation section where it was inserted into an avionics unit furnished by Ecliptic Enterprises which supplied battery power and housed a radio-frequency transmitter. Two separate antennae, mounted on the exterior of the external tank, simultaneously transmitted live video throughout the launch sequence. Ground-based assets tracked, recorded and re-transmitted the video feed to Shuttle mission control, contractors and the viewing public.

The Tools Used:

  • Ecliptic Enterprises avionics unit
  • Emhiser Research (Verdi, NV) 10-watt, S-band video transmitter
  • NASA TV and NASA Webcast, in collaboration with Akamai Technologies (Cambridge, MA) and Yahoo! (Sunnyvale, CA)
  • S-Band blade antennae from the Physical Science Laboratory, New Mexico State University (Las Cruces)
  • Sanyo Energy (San Diego, CA) NiMH battery pack and custom circuitry
  • Sony Electronics BetaCam SP recorder
  • Sony Electronics XC-999 NTSC color video camera with 3.5 mm C-mount lens (future missions will employ a Sony model XC-555 camera)
  • Various tracking dishes (Playalinda Beach, FL and Wallops Island, VA)

The Difference It Made:

Over one hundred separate ground- and air-based cameras documented the STS-114 launch, but only the External Tank Video System captured the infamous insulation foam incident during ascent. This knowledge and the video record, combined with high resolution still images taken by the Shuttle crew, prompted renewed examination and subsequent re-design of the external tank insulation. The entire Shuttle fleet was grounded after STS-114. While NASA’s credibility may have been called into question, the episode served to enhance safety for future crews. The STS-114 mission surpassed previous NASA TV viewership by a factor of four and was one of the biggest Internet Webcast events ever.

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