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NASA Takes HD to New Heights

(click thumbnail)The X-38 prototypes are intended to perfect a “crew lifeboat” for the International Space Station. The X-38 vehicle 131R demonstrates a huge 7,500- square-foot parafoil that will enable the Crew Return Vehicle (CRV) to land on the length of a football field after returning from space.Engineers Discover What They Couldn't With the Naked Eye


Out in the warm California desert, where the sound barrier was broken more than 50 years ago by a young pilot named Chuck Yeager, NASA continues to make history.

And to Frank Cutler, history looks much clearer thanks to high definition.

As project director for the X-38 program at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, Cutler focuses on an experimental aircraft project known as the X-38, a reusable, wingless CRV (crew return vehicle) designed to retrieve astronauts from the International Space Station and bring them safely back to Earth.

But the latest achievement at Dryden, which sits on a natural dry lake bed nearly 100 miles north of Los Angeles, is not only a new experimental aircraft but also HD technology and what the format has been able to show the X-38 team of analysts and engineers.

"An HD picture really does say a thousand words," Cutler said.


Driven by its Digital Television Working Group at Marshall Space Flight Research Center in Huntsville, Ala. NASA has purchased HD gear for some of its 12research and flight centers for several years and plans to transition to an all-digital broadcast environment by 2003. The agency is also using HD cameras and lenses to provide feedback and advice to manufacturers on improving the format.

(click thumbnail)The prototype X-38 Crew Return Vehicle for the International Space Station drops away from its launch pylon on the wing of NASA's NB-52B mothership as it begins its eighth free flight Dec. 13, 2001.
Specifically, Dryden wanted to know how well the HD format could capture images of aircraft, especially those being buffeted by fast speeds and powerful weather.

"We wanted to test HD in a number of ways: by looking at operation maintenance, by looking at HD in post production and by conducting laboratory and field tests of different types of formats," explained Jenny Baer-Riedhart, public affairs chief at Dryden.
HD Gives NASA Long-range ViewTo better catch images of aircraft that fly regularly at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center, the agency's Western Aeronautical Test Range (WATR) operations branch recently began using a high-definition digital camera and an infrared analog camera mounted atop a 360-degree tracking pedestal, allowing engineers to track aircraft at distances of up to 100 miles.

This new HD Long Range Optics (LRO) tower was built by a team of engineers and technicians from WATR and Spiral Technology who modified off-the-shelf products for use at Dryden. A Focal Technologies fiber-optic rotary joint (FORJ), originally designed for use in submersible, remotely operated vehicles, was modified to pass HD video and camera-control signals through two fiber-optic conductors. This allowed engineers to overcome the bandwidth limitation often associated with conventional copper slip rings.

The system uses a Canon zoom lens mounted to a modified Panasonic 720p camera.

– Susan Ashworth
The format indeed had a tough test in front of it. Last year, Dryden decided to evaluate two of the four HD formats, 720p and 1080i, to determine how well HD operates in the field under tough flight and atmospheric conditions and how clearly HD could illustrate the intricacies of high-speed flight to NASA engineers and the public.

Most dramatic was a mid-December routine test flight by the X-38 shot with several HD cameras, including a unique long-range Panasonic AQ-720p prototype permanently mounted on a truck, to track aircraft. The shoot also used two handheld ENG models, including a Sony HDCAM 700A 1080i camera with a Canon 15X HJ15x8b lens.

The images of the December test flight were phenomenal, according to those who were at the formal viewing.

The X-38 made its ascent into the skies strapped to the belly of a B-52 bomber, and at 45,000 feet, it was released to begin its solo flight.

As the aircraft approached from about four miles out, engineers began to see things on the HD video they hadn't noticed before.

Formation of small ice particles was clearly visible, and hatches on the X-38 could be seen separating, as they are designed to do. Engineers also watched as riser lines on the X-38, which connect to the aircraft's multicolored parachute – known as a parafoil – were deployed.

"[HD] becomes a very good engineering aid," Cutler said. "We're able to see [sections of the aircraft] as if we were right there. As opposed to simply looking at numbers, we can combine this video with numerical data to get a more complete picture."


The HD footage, which was played back on a 40-inch monitor after the flight, allowed Dryden engineers to clearly track the aircraft when it was still 18,000 feet from its landing site. In the past, Dryden has used film for its detailed-oriented engineering. But film is often cost-prohibitive, and as a result, NASA began looking at HD as its primary capture tool.

"The detail that these cameras can provide is exceptional," said Lori Losey, senior producer and director of Spiral Technology, which is collaborating with NASA on a future HD documentary about the X-38 aircraft.

NASA Dryden plans to conduct frame-by-frame analysis of the December footage and compare the HD footage with a standard DigiBeta camera that also taped the flight. Future plans may call for air-to-air coverage, which would involve placing an HD camera on board, said Baer-Riedhart.

But before NASA takes HD to the skies, "we'll wait to see where the technology is going to evolve in the next two to three years," Baer-Riedhart said. The agency is committed, however, to converting its existing analog formats to a digital platform. The Dryden headquarters also uses an Accom Stratasphere nonlinear edit system for downconversion and a Sony HDW500 deck, among other equipment.

NASA is still determining which format to officially adopt. Baer-Riedhart says the agency is looking closely at the 1080p format — as opposed to 720p or interlaced – because of the progressive format's high resolution and ability to conduct frame-to-frame referencing.

NASA Dryden has only begun to gather HD footage in the last year, and the agency hopes to continue to garner support for its programs and projects by showing off the experimental aircraft to contractors, senior NASA management and the media.

Although Losey and colleague Bruce Anderson, X-38 project manager at the Johnson Space Center, have been working on an X-38 documentary for several years, NASA delayed releasing the documentary so it could acquire additional footage in HD.

"From a production standpoint, HD gives us so much more creative freedom in capturing some of the most jaw-dropping imagery people will ever see," Losey said. "We are fortunate enough to document one-of-a-kind flight test vehicles and programs. So, it's exciting to archive these historical images and data onto the highest quality format available."

Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology. In addition to her work covering the broadcast television industry, she has served as editor of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as education, radio, chess, music and sports. Outside of her life as a writer, she recently served as president of a local nonprofit organization supporting girls in baseball.