For decades now, NASA has been sending spacecraft throughout the galaxy. Once in the cosmos, these crafts use advanced cameras to create images of corners and crevices of our universe never before seen and then transmit these pictures back to laboratories on Earth, where government scientists then ask themselves: What exactly are we looking at?
That question is answered at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in the Image Processing Laboratory, founded in 1966 to receive and make sense of spacecraft imagery. There, NASA-invented VICAR (Video Image Communication and Retrieval) software has, through the years, laid the groundwork for understanding images of all kinds. The original software, created by a JPL team of three, Robert Nathan, Fred Billingsley, and Robert Selzer, is in use even to this day, although with greater accuracy and effectiveness due to decades of advancements.
The imaging division at JPL has grown increasingly sophisticated over the years, developing new processes and technologies to handle increasingly complex acquisitions from each NASA space mission, from the Voyager images of Saturn and Jupiter taken in the 1970s, to the new imagery captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in late 2006 that suggests water still flows on Mars, opening the possibility that the Red Planet could perhaps support some forms of life.
Selzer, from the original VICAR team, has made the NASA imaging technology his life’s work, spending 46 years as a NASA employee and continuing to work on its advancement even after his retirement from JPL. Selzer received many NASA awards for technical achievement, including the prestigious Technology and Application Program Exceptional Achievement Medal.
During the last 15 years of his career as a government scientist, he, as head of the JPL Biomedical Image Processing Laboratory, was working on using the imaging technology for health care diagnosis.
The project began when the imaging team developed the idea of using the VICAR software to analyze X-ray images of soft tissue. Typically, the X-ray is ineffective when used to analyze soft tissues, though the researchers were curious to see if the imaging software could broaden the application of this readily available diagnostic procedure. The results were interesting, but too much quality was lost in transferring the pictures into a digital format for analysis. Still, the idea seemed feasible, so, with several grants from NASA, the testing continued.
Selzer’s JPL team, partnering with scientists from the University of Southern California under the direction of the late Dr. David Blankenhorn and Dr. Howard Hodis, director of the Atherosclerosis Research Unit at the school’s Keck School of Medicine, began to image X-rays of arteries. With marginal success using X-rays, they came upon the idea of using the same methodology but applying it to ultrasound imagery, which was already digitally formatted. The new approach proved successful for assessing amounts of plaque buildup and arterial wall thickness, direct predictors of heart disease.