FAU in Space
FAU in Space
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FAU in Space
FAU in Space
Super camera developed at FAU to get a shot at space
By Jennifer Peltz
Posted June 13 2005
BOCA RATON – One of the next times a space shuttle returns to orbit, expect Florida Atlantic University's pride to soar with it.
A stunningly sharp video camera developed largely at FAU is set to hitch a shuttle ride as soon as next year. Its mission: part science, part safety and part space-age scrapbook.
It's expected to aid science experiments at the international space station, where it also might inspect space shuttles for potentially dangerous damage before they return to Earth, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. FAU researchers gave NASA officials a demonstration in Houston recently, according to the university. But NASA also wants the camera to capture images of space and astronauts at work – and with them, the public's imagination.
The camera also is scrutinizing ships at sea from a U.S. Navy tower near Port Everglades and scouring the ocean floor for certain corals that show medicinal promise. On land, an earlier version of the camera has shown potential as a tool for long-distance diagnosis and doctor training. And Panavision, the movie business' leading camera manufacturer, has bought rights to the technology for potential use in filmmaking, surveillance and other arenas.
"There's not much more places it can go," said lead inventor William E. Glenn, who runs FAU's Imaging Technology Center from labs in Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale.
The camera doesn't look like much, and that's the beauty of it. Measuring 5 by 7 inches, it weighs less than 4 pounds and takes a conventionalmovie-camera lens.
It is, however, very unconventional. Its "HDMAX" images can capture four times as much detail as high-definition television or movie film, and 24 times as much as regular, broadcast TV, Glenn said. How sharp is that? Sharp enough to get a legible image of a road sign three miles away out the window of Glenn's laboratory in Boca Raton, given a sizeable telephoto lens.
Sharp enough to get a clear picture of a 1-inch object a mile away from its perch near Port Everglades, Glenn said. The Navy sees the camera as a tool to catch sight of potential threats from small boats, personal watercraft, and even swimmers, said Office of Naval Research official Jim Buss.
Sharp enough also to capture a crack in one of the shuttle's protective tiles while it docks at the space station. That requires enough resolution to capture a one-eighth-inch fissure two football fields away during a 90-second maneuver, Glenn said.
So sharp, in short, that even when Glenn and his colleagues view the camera's images on a special 22-inch computer screen, they need magnifying lenses to see all the detail. "It seems to be the camera of the future," says Sherwood Anderson, a NASA official following the HDMAX camera's progress at FAU and Texas A&M University. Researchers there are working to get it ready for space.
At 79, Glenn has spent half a century at the edge of the future. He's been known for decades as one of the nation's foremost forward-thinkers on TV technology. Still, the soft-spoken inventor is obliging but hardly effusive when asked about his work, as if 123 patents and an Emmy Award haven't entirely convinced him of its exceptionality.
His interest in images dates to his childhood, when he "used to fool around with photography," he said when pressed. Hours in a home darkroom evolved into a doctorate in electrical engineering, followed by a job in General Electric's TV-imaging labs.
Glenn started in 1952, when most Americans had yet to see color television. By 1960, he already was working on high-definition TV.
He later ran CBS's research laboratories and moved into academia, picking up an Emmy along the way for a device that reduces visual noise, or "snow," in a TV picture. FAU wooed him in 1989 with a six-figure salary and support for his research. Within two years, NASA had put FAU at the helm of a $5 million effort to develop commercial uses for satellite communications.
Now, NASA, the U.S. Navy, Panavision and the state pitch in $2 million to $3 million a year for Glenn's 20-person lab, he said.
On an average day, one researcher formats computer chips for the HDMAX, while another is graphs various measures of its sharpness. In the hall, others prepare to test it by filming shuttle tiles from 200 feet away.
The tile project is in especially sharp focus. After the shuttle Columbia exploded on its way home Feb. 1, 2003, investigators concluded NASA needed a better way to inspect and repair the shuttle's heat-shielding panels and tiles while in space. The explosion had been traced to damage during liftoff to a panel on the shuttle's left wing.
The shuttles have been grounded since the explosion, but flights are scheduled to resume in July. If all goes according to plan, the HDMAX camera could take off as early as fall 2006 for at least the science and video-chronicle parts of its purpose, Anderson said. "One of the things the American public gets from space is pictures," Anderson said. "That's one of the things they appreciate most."