Dramatic video of the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS), from the initial blastoff to rocket-booster separation, gave NASA essential information about the performance of the Artemis I flight. It also proved the capabilities of a new rugged video camera mounted on the exterior of the core rocket stage. The camera, developed using patented NASA hardware and agency expertise, survived the heat of blastoff and the cold of space, and it’s now ready for extreme conditions on Earth.
Whether it’s mounted to the underside of an airplane to live-stream takeoff and landing for the pilots or added to drilling infrastructure to stream a real-time view of equipment operation, the SPC-S2010 camera, the commercial version of the NASA flight-tested one, is likely the most rugged video camera available.
“It’s very rewarding and very advantageous to work with NASA,” said Greg Pangburn, CFO of Imperx Inc., the Boca Raton, FL-based company that built the camera. “We learned a lot of new things that will allow us to offer something to our customer base that we’ve never had before.”
After initial testing of off-the-shelf cameras, engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (Huntsville, AL) found that only one Imperx model, called the Cheetah, performed well on the most difficult challenge for electronics in space — radiation. Jarret Bone, a mechanical engineer working on the SLS camera system, said his team wanted to avoid designing a camera from scratch. Working with an existing camera helped simplify the process by shortening the time needed to perfect the system.
“There just aren’t a lot of cameras that can live in space that have the optical requirements for resolution and the image size we needed,” said Bone. So, the team came up with a design to repackage the Cheetah model, enclosing it in a rugged housing incorporating the necessary electrical and mechanical components.
With an eye toward supporting a commercial camera for future missions, the agency patented the technology. But the need to add a heater presented a problem. When NASA engineers approached Imperx to collaborate, the company readily agreed.
Temperatures around a rocket traveling through space get cold enough to damage electronics. Imperx was happy to collaborate on adding a heater that could be turned on and off as needed, but it soon became apparent to Pangburn that it would be easier and quicker for the company to engineer NASA’s requirements into a new camera model.
Imperx created several versions of a custom camera for the Marshall team to test. The data from every success and failure informed changes, resulting in new models and more testing.
“Environmental testing is expensive, too expensive for us as a small business,” said Pangburn. “Because of the extensive testing that NASA requires and their many areas of expertise, we learned a lot of things along the way.” Recommendations for non-offgassing materials to eliminate interference with camera performance and changes to conformal coding are just a few tips from NASA being incorporated into numerous Imperx cameras.
A question about screws served as a learning opportunity that, for Bone, illustrates how aerospace expertise can benefit an existing commercial product.
“Imperx builds really elegant cameras — they’re small, compact — but they use these tiny, millimeter-sized screws,” he said. The company pointed out the housing was “built like a tank,” believing that would be enough protection for the existing screws. But NASA’s extensive experience building technology to withstand the extreme conditions of launch and spaceflight resulted in another improvement.
The NASA technologists invited the company to view environmental testing. The demonstration of how forceful vibration can effectively “unscrew” bolts gave the company a new definition for “extreme,” according to Pangburn. And it was useful for developing cameras for use in aviation, drilling, and mining.
The second design easily passed the vibration test.
Bone credits the company with the “highly effective” firmware needed to pull the data from the sensor, format it, and transmit it. “That’s expertise we didn’t have,” he said. Keeping the manufacturing cost low to provide an off-the-shelf part that’s cheaper than anything the agency could have produced also benefited the project.
Even before the SLS camera launched in December 2022, Imperx was able to develop and offer a commercial version. The SPC-S2010 is a two-megapixel, high-definition camera that incorporates the patented housing, a heater along with a built-in ring light, and three-kilovolt isolation. This isolation protects internal electronics from unstable power sources. Whether that’s a power surge or static transmitted by attached equipment, this feature can prevent damage that could be caused, for example, by a lightning strike nearby.
Pangburn said the NASA collaboration is directly tied to an added $10 million in sales, which is significant for the company. But even more important to Imperx is the opportunity to bring some camera business back to this country. Noting that commercial aviation uses a variety of cameras to improve takeoff and landing safety, Pangburn said European technology has been meeting that need for years.
“This experience has helped us make a camera that can withstand being mounted on an airplane, which goes from ground level up to 36,000-40,000 feet and then comes back down,” he said. “It works perfectly during all of those altitude changes, whether it’s hot or cold outside, if it’s raining or snowing. It’s helped our expansion into aviation systems.”
Bone hopes NASA will be a future customer because “the environmental range on these cameras is insane,” he said, noting that one of them survived eight minutes positioned just a few feet from a blasting rocket engine, followed by the frigid space environment.
The video footage from that flight is going to come in handy when talking to potential customers, whether their industry is commercial space, aeronautics, oil and gas, mining, or trains, said Pangburn. “I’m sure the response will be, ‘If it’s good enough for NASA, I’m sure it’s good enough for me.’ Because what customers want is a proven concept.”
Imperx credits the public-private partnership with giving its small business a big boost.
“NASA engineers are highly educated, motivated, and they’re imaginative. They are willing to try things that haven’t been tried before,” said Pangburn. “We’re in the camera business, but there are so many other businesses that can work with NASA and learn from their expertise.”
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