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Update on NASA Imagery with Rodney Grubbs

RodneyGrubbsAt the HPA Tech Retreat this year, NASA Imagery Experts Program Manager Rodney Grubbs gave a compelling presentation about how the space agency is using professional cameras to capture outer space images. For fans of space exploration or sci-fi, the chance to see these images is a thrill. But NASA isn’t simply showing off pretty pictures. It’s actively asking the film/TV community for its expertise to take even better pictures.

During his presentation, Grubbs enumerated the challenges in capturing high-res imagery in space: radiation, fickle and extreme temperatures, operating a camera in a vacuum, and, at the end of the line, transmitting those spectacular images to earth. All the cameras with high-resolution sensors tested thus far, says Grubbs, have been consistently damaged by ionizing radiation, up to seven to 10 pixels a day.

Since then, the NASA team began testing its first Bayer-pattern camera, the RED EPIC on the SpaceX Dragon, the first-ever private spacecraft to rendezvous with the Space Station. The first RED camera, housed in a standard body, has just come back and is undergoing testing to determine the level of pixel damage. Meanwhile, says Grubbs, RED president Jarred Land commissioned a carbon fiber camera body to house the second ISS RED camera’s sensors. “It’s not getting damaged as much as the first one,” says Grubbs. “It’ll be interesting when we get it back and compare it with damage to the first RED.”

Other cameras that NASA has tested are two Panasonic AG-3DA1 twin lens HD 3D camcorders. “The first one flew on the last space shuttle mission and was up for a little more than a year,” he says. “The second flew on a SpaceX Dragon and it stayed up for over 1,000 days. Both of them performed better than any CMOS camera we’ve flown before. We just got the second one back and it actually performed better than the first one, although it was up for three times as long.”

The Canon XF305 is the workhorse day-to-day camera, says Grubbs, but it exhibits enough damaged pixels that it’s replaced every eight months or so. He’s looking to replace it with a camera that can shoot 4K and has a built-in encoder, such as new models from Canon and Panasonic. “The Panasonic AJ-PX270PJ microP2 handheld camcorder is showing promise,” he says. Grubbs is eager to segue to a camera with a built-in encoder, to make it easier to stream live HD. “The Panasonic 270 features an optional built-in encoder, which would make life easier on the crew and much less cumbersome than a standalone encoder.” Currently, Grubbs’ team is testing the AJ-PX270PJ in a lab “to simulate the Internet on the Space Station, with the latency for communicating with an orbiting spacecraft.”

The SpaceX explosion on Sept. 1 was a temporary setback. “We were going to fly the next RED Epic cameras with a UHD encoder, to give us live UltraHD, the first such broadcast from space,” says Grubbs. “But the explosion put that on hold.” Since RED is on the verge of introducing its Super 35mm Helium 8K sensor, says Grubbs, NASA is in a “wait and see” mode. “We’ll probably switch in 2017 or 2018, because it gives us more aperture and would be easier for low light and time-lapse photography,” he says.

In addition to live UHD from space, virtual reality is next on NASA’s “event horizon.” “We’re looking at the Nokia OZO,” he says. “NASA has also received proposals from all kinds of startup companies saying they’re building their own VR cameras. All these are proprietary, so I can’t go into detail, but we’re reviewing these proposals for technical merit. In a year or so, we hope to fly one if not more VR camera rigs.”

One of the biggest benefits of using a VR rig, says Grubbs, is that NASA would be able to show smooth pans and tilts of the Space Station exterior, something not possible with mechanical pan/tilt units. “If I want to build a new pan/tilt unit, the cost is estimated to be millions of dollars,” he says. “But with a VR rig with virtual pan and tilt, via stitching views from cameras with no moving parts, that gives me the functionality I need.”

“If you could be inside the Space Station with any view you wanted, that would excite the public like nothing we’ve done before,” he says.

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