Over the last 25 years, some of the sophisticated technology developed for the HST has been successfully spun off and commercialized to improve life on Earth.
One of the CCDs developed for Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph by Scientific Imaging Technologies, Inc. (SITe) (Beaverton, OR) found its way into a sophisticated medical device called the LORAD Stereo Guide™ Breast Biopsy System as part of the instrument’s digital imaging package. Manufactured by LORAD Corporation (Danbury, CT), the Stereo Guide system allows women who require a breast biopsy to have it performed with a needle instead of a surgical procedure. The patient reclines face down on a table with the breast in question protruding through, directly above the imaging device. The radiologist images the suspicious mass from two different angles to precisely locate it, and then uses a small needle to take a biopsy. Afterwards, the patient walks out and has none of the discomfort common with surgical biopsies.
Another company that has successfully commercialized Hubble technology is Micro Medical Devices, Inc. (Calabasas, CA). In 1997 they signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA’s Glenn Research Center to develop a micro-endoscope that would give doctors the ability to see what was happening inside a patient’s body via computer screen instead of on the operating table.
Obviously, the images needed to be crystal clear, and they needed to be available in real time. According to NASA, special algorithms were used “to remove fiber patterns, lessen noise, sharpen the picture, and improve the color and illumination.” The result was a sophisticated diagnostic tool called the InnerVue™ Diagnostic Scope System that gave doctors the ability to diagnose knee and shoulder problems quickly and with minimum patient discomfort.
Planning & Scheduling
Controlling technology as sophisticated as that used on the HST requires some pretty advanced software, so it was safe to assume some of it would find its way into commercial applications. Two prime examples are SPIKE™ scheduling software from Interval Logic Corporation (Sunnyvale, CA) and the On-Cue software suite from Allocade Inc. (Menlo Park, CA).
SPIKE was originally created to maximize Hubble’s operational efficiency. It’s a big universe out there and ensuring that Hubble’s instruments were studying the right objects at the right time took careful planning and coordination. Based on SPIKE’s success at handling those logistics, it wasn’t hard to adapt the software to the complex production process involved in semiconductor manufacturing.
On-Cue was another software suite originally developed to maximize the efficient use of Hubble’s array of instruments. One of On-Cue’s developers, NASA computer scientist Don Rosenthal, acquired the intellectual property rights to the software and cofounded a company called Allocade Inc. to commercialize the technology. Under Rosenthal’s guidance, Allocade adapted the software to optimize the often chaotic schedules of hospitals and medical facilities, minimize unused capacity, and maximize manpower efficiency.
Considering Hubble’s tremendous contribution to the science of astronomy, it didn’t take much imagination to commercialize some of that technology. TheSky is a unique software package developed by Software Bisque (Golden, CO) with the help of NASA, which contributed its Hubble-derived 19-million-object database. TheSky, together with its related programs – SkyPro image processing software and the Remote Astronomy Software, which can be used to remotely operate a telescope and imaging system – put the power of high-technology astronomy into the hands of any amateur astronomer with a personal computer. The most cutting-edge feature of the software package was the ability it gave qualified users to remotely control Mount Wilson’s 24-inch telescope and CCD camera.
Precision optics and ultraviolet technology are synonymous with the HST, so it was no surprise that a consortium of companies decided to take what was learned from Hubble and use extreme ultraviolet light in place of conventional lithography to produce semiconductors.
SVG-Tinsley (Richmond, CA), a division of Silicon Valley Group (SVG) (San Jose, CA), manufactured the small mirrors used in the Hubble’s COSTAR corrective optics device. Together with Silicon Valley Group Lithography; SEMATECH, the non-profit semiconductor manufacturers association; and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, they formed an R&D initiative dubbed the High Precision Optics Joint Sponsored Research Agreement (JSRA). The stated purpose of JSRA was to explore the application of the extreme UV technology and precision optics developed for the HST to the manufacture of semiconductors.
In one of the famous images taken by Hubble, called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, approximately 10,000 galaxies were revealed, each of them made up of billions of stars. Mapping that area, and others like it, required sophisticated software that could compare and identify complex star patterns. Edward J. Groth, a Princeton physics professor, had invented a pattern-matching algorithm in 1986 that fit the bill by triangulating all of the possible star triplets in a given image. His algorithm was added to the HST’s Space Telescope Science Data Analysis System (STSDAS) software package used by NASA to analyze Hubble’s data.
In 2002, scuba diver Jason Holmberg had a rare encounter with a whale shark, an endangered species characterized by its distinctive markings – a unique pattern of white spots on its skin as distinctive as a human’s fingerprints. Tracking the fish by comparing photos and matching spots was a tedious and imprecise science, so Holmberg turned to an astrophysicist friend of his, Dr. Zaven Arzoumanian. Through Arzoumanian’s work with the Goddard Space Flight Center, they came across the Groth algorithm and realized it could be adapted to their purpose. They modified the algorithm to compensate for the graphical differences between the size and shape of a whale shark’s spots and stars in the sky, and made several other enhancements.
Since then, Holmberg has assembled a whale shark database called the ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library, to which anyone can contribute photos. The project has been so successful that another group of researchers at the University of Central Florida in Orlando took Holmberg’s version of the Groth algorithm and further modified it to track polar bears based on the unique whisker spot pattern on their muzzles.