Dr. Greg Olsen has had an illustrious career as a research scientist and entrepreneur. With degrees in physics and materials science, Olsen founded EPITAXX, a fiber-optic detector manufacturer, in 1984, and then founded Sensors Unlimited Inc. (SUI), a near-infrared camera manufacturer in 1992. SUI was sold to Goodrich Corp. in 2005. During his career, Olsen developed vapor phase epitaxial crystal growth of optoelectronic devices, including laser diodes and photodetectors for fiber-optic applications based on the material indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs). He was awarded 12 patents, wrote more than 100 technical papers, co-authored several book chapters, and has given numerous lectures to both technical and trade journal audiences.
But Olsen may be best known for becoming the third private citizen to orbit the Earth on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2005. After training for five months at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Moscow, he launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket, and two days later, docked to the ISS. He performed more than 150 orbits of the Earth and logged almost 4 million miles of weightless travel during his ten days in space.
Imaging Technology spoke to Olsen about SUI cameras on NASA’s LCROSS mission, his experience in space, and how he’s helping to advance engineering education.
Imaging the Moon
Two of SUI Goodrich’s SWIR-InGaAs cameras are part of NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) payload, with the main mission of confirming the presence or absence of water ice on the Moon. In October, the LCROSS spacecraft separated into two sections, with the Centaur rocket impacting the lunar surface, kicking up a large plume of dust. The shepherding spacecraft section followed, with the cameras, to image and analyze the resultant dust plume for water vapor, hydrocarbons, and hydrated materials.
The cameras recorded images of the debris, which were transmitted back to Earth in real time for evaluation. Because the SWIR cameras can detect moisture contrast through dust, smoke, and fog, they had the unique ability to accurately record the LCROSS crash incident for precise study of the debris cloud.
SWIR technology detects reflected light at wavelengths that the human eye cannot see, in wavelength bands between visible and thermal cameras. Olsen explained: “You can detect water in near-infrared. Water absorbs heat. If you want to think of it pictorially, water preferentially absorbs heat. So, if you’re looking at a picture that has water in it, with a near-infrared camera, the water will look black or dark, because it’s absorbing the light — it’s not reflecting it. An interesting application of our camera that NASA funded was for ice detection. Ice reflects heat more than liquid water does. So we could look at an aircraft wing and tell if its been properly de-iced by whether it’s dark or light.
“For our camera, in the near-infrared, the material it uses for detection is indium gallium arsenide. That material gives the best quantum efficiency in the 1- to 2-micron spectral region of any material. In that spectral region, it’s not a thermal imager the way you see pictures of hot objects at night. But it is good for night vision because at night, our eyes can’t see, but there’s a lot of near-infrared light — stars and other things. The Sensors Unlimited camera really images that well. That’s the advantage of it. I would say anything in the 1- to 2-micron region, that’s specifically water, which has a signature in that spectrum.”
The LCROSS payload team conducted an extensive process to select the components for the science payload. The goal for the payload team was to collect a set of instruments that would collect data from different aspects of the Centaur impact, but would be complementary to each other. Although the selected instruments are considered rugged for their intended uses on Earth, space is a harsh environment. The LCROSS payload team put the individual instruments though a rigorous testing cycle that simulated launch and the conditions of space.
Said Olsen, “We did some experiments with Lehigh University and we found that indium gallium arsenide is about as radiation-resistant as silicon. It’s as good or bad as any standard electronics. Now, obviously, we do some protection for that. There are metal covers, and so forth. But as you know, not all kinds of radiation can be shielded and yes, it is susceptible, just as I was on the Space Station.”
Science on the Station
It’s been four years since Olsen became the third private citizen to orbit the Earth on the ISS. In his eight days on the station, he conducted remote sensing and astronomy research projects.
“I did very little of my own science on the station, and here’s why,” Olsen said. “My original program was to grow crystals. NASA had grown indium antimonide in their glovebox, and I wanted to add gallium to the mix. I wanted to use the existing facility to do that. I would have taken it down and maybe made a camera out of it for infrared sensing. I also wanted to bring a Sensors Unlimited near-infrared camera to image the Earth. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do either one of those things. NASA had disconnected the glovebox by the time I was going to do my mission, and secondly, ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) restrictions prevented me from bringing the camera to Russia. I couldn’t do my own program, so instead, I did some experiments for the European Space Agency.”
Those experiments involved taking about 50 bacteria samples to see what new strains grew, and taking them back down to Earth in a thermoelectric refrigerator. Indeed, Olsen explained, they did find some new strains growing there, but fortunately, none were dangerous.
“I also did some experiments on motion sickness. It’s still a big mystery who will and won’t get motion sick in space. They don’t have a good predictor. So, I’m one of the fortunate ones who don’t seem susceptible to it. They did a lot of experiments on me to see what my limits were. When I came back, the European Space Agency put me in a centrifuge for an hour at 3 Gs, and while I was doing that, they had me do a bunch of head movements, and still it didn’t seem to affect me.”
Olsen was able to capture both video and still images while in space. “I took my own digital camera and a video camera. There is very good photographic equipment, both video and digital-still up on the station. I used that, as well as my own video camera, but it was strictly in the visible range.”
NASA and the Future of Engineering
During his career, Olsen has founded several businesses, including Sensors Unlimited. All of those businesses have been involved in NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. He not only supports the program, but encourages other small business startups to take advantage of what the program has to offer.
“It was very successful for me. It’s a wonderful program. For anyone entering it, I’d give them the same advice that I’d give anyone else starting a business. Do it right — put the time in.”
Olsen knows from experience that perseverance pays off. “Our first couple of proposals were rejected and we were frustrated just like anybody else, but we said ‘How can we make this thing better?’ We worked and worked and guess what? We got one. And pretty soon we got two, and then we got more. It’s hard work, and you have to stick to it.”
NASA and the commercial space program have helped Olsen, both in business and in life. As far as the progress of a commercial space program goes, he’s a staunch proponent. “Of course I am. And I would say most of NASA is as well. I’d like to see NASA really doing the far-out stuff. How are we going to get out of this solar system? What new propulsion systems do we need? How do we get beyond chemical rockets? What’s the next step? Maybe the relatively routine stuff — like going back and forth to the ISS — could be done by the private sector.”
Today, Olsen is president of GHO Ventures in Princeton, NJ, where he manages his angel investments and performs speaking engagements to encourage children — especially minorities and females — to consider careers in science and engineering. He speaks in underserved areas that do not always have access to notable speakers. “I view these areas as an untapped gold mine. These kids don’t necessarily have the resources that more fortunate kids have. So I try to get in there and give them a taste of what it’s like and tell them that I had a modest background. I try to give them the message that if I can do it, you can do it, too.”