From The Editor | August 18, 2023

How NASA Uses High-Speed Cameras During Launch And In Flight

John Oncea

By John Oncea, Editor


Artemis I was an uncrewed test flight that orbited and flew beyond the moon in late 2022. The primary goals of the mission were to demonstrate Orion's systems in a spaceflight environment and ensure a safe re-entry, descent, splashdown, and recovery. Let’s take a look at the cameras used to capture Artemis I’s launch and flight.

The Artemis I mission, the first step in returning humans to the moon, successfully launched on November 16, 2022, at 1:47 a.m. EST from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center. The mission lasted nearly 26 days with the uncrewed Orion capsule splashing down in the Pacific Ocean 100 miles off the coast of Baja California.

The mission achieved its three main objectives, including demonstrating that the Orion spacecraft's heat shield can withstand the high speed and heat of lunar re-entry. The mission also tested Orion's ability to operate beyond low Earth orbit and tested deep space navigation and communication systems.

High-speed cameras – specialized imaging devices designed to capture fast-moving objects or events with incredibly high frame rates – were used to track spacecraft, playing a crucial role in providing detailed visual information during the critical moments of liftoff and flight. Key features and applications of the high-speed cameras tracking the launch include:

  • Frame Rate and Resolution: High-speed cameras are capable of recording at extremely high frame rates, often ranging from hundreds to thousands of frames per second (fps) or even higher. This high frame rate allows them to capture the rapid movements and changes that occur during a spacecraft or missile launch, such as the ignition of engines, the separation of stages, and the trajectory changes. Additionally, high-speed cameras can provide high-resolution imagery, capturing fine details even in fast-moving scenes.
  • Event Analysis: During a launch, numerous critical events take place within a short period. High-speed cameras enable engineers, scientists, and analysts to study these events in detail. For example, they can be used to monitor the behavior of propulsion systems, the deployment of solar panels or antennas, and the behavior of various subsystems as they react to the stresses of liftoff and acceleration.
  • Data Collection and Verification: High-speed cameras are used to gather visual data that can be used for analysis, verification, and validation of simulations and models. The captured footage can help engineers compare the real-world performance of a launch vehicle or missile with the expected behavior predicted by computer simulations.
  • Troubleshooting and Anomaly Detection: In the event of anomalies or unexpected behavior during a launch, high-speed cameras can provide valuable insight into the root cause. Engineers can review the footage to identify any irregularities, malfunctions, or failures that occurred during the launch sequence.
  • Research and Development: High-speed cameras are also essential tools for research and development in the aerospace and defense industries. Engineers and scientists use them to study the effects of aerodynamics, vibrations, and thermal stresses on the vehicle during launch. This information is crucial for improving the design and performance of future spacecraft and missiles.
  • Safety and Quality Control: High-speed cameras contribute to safety and quality control efforts by allowing engineers to assess whether critical components, such as separation mechanisms or protective covers, function as intended during launch. This helps ensure that no debris or malfunctioning parts pose a risk to the vehicle's mission.
  • Remote Observation: In situations where it's not safe or feasible to observe a launch up close, high-speed cameras can be strategically placed at various vantage points to capture the launch from a distance. This provides a safe way to monitor and document the launch process.

3 ... 2 ... 1 ... (Smile) Liftoff!

Cameras used on spacecraft are similar to digital cameras but are more sensitive and tougher. Instead of film, they use special light-sensitive devices called charge-coupled devices (CCDs). Cameras used by NASA to track rocket launches past and present include:

  • 16mm motion picture film cameras on the launch platform and other locations at the launch pad
  • Cordin High-Speed Shadowgraph Cameras capable of taking 2.5 million images per second
  • IMAX cameras which were used to film the shuttle’s launch and landing during the first shuttle in 1981
  • Nikon F4 electronic still camera which was the first digital SLR used by NASA in 1991
  • Wide field of view infrared cameras to spot and track missile launches
  • Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) which work together to capture images of the cosmos
  • 70-millimeter Hasselblad data cameras which are carried by astronauts on the lunar surface
  • Nikon's F3 35mm camera, specially modified for use by Space Shuttle astronauts

Let’s take a look at Artemis 1 to better understand how NASA uses high-speed cameras. “There are 24 cameras on the rocket and spacecraft – eight on SLS and 16 on Orion – to document essential mission events including liftoff, ascent, solar array deployment, external rocket inspections, landing and recovery, and capture images of Earth and the Moon,” writes NASA.

During the launch and ascent of the rocket, there are a total of eight cameras in place for capturing various events. Four of the cameras are positioned around the engine section, pointing upwards toward Orion. Additionally, there are two cameras located at the intertank by the top of the boosters to capture booster separation, and two more cameras on the launch vehicle stage adapter to capture core stage separation. These cameras will operate through a pre-programmed sequence during the launch and ascent process.

During launch, an external camera mounted on the crew module adapter of the Orion spacecraft will provide the public with a “rocket cam” view of the SLS rocket's ascent. Another camera will capture the jettison of the service module panel and the deployment of its solar array wings. Additionally, four cameras attached to the solar array wings will help engineers evaluate the spacecraft's external condition and take a selfie with the Earth or Moon in the background.

“Each of Orion’s four solar array wings has a commercial off-the-shelf camera mounted at the tip that has been highly modified for use in space, providing a view of the spacecraft exterior,” said David Melendrez, imagery integration lead for the Orion Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Within the spacecraft, additional wireless cameras have been installed to capture the same viewpoints that astronauts will experience during upcoming Artemis missions. One camera is positioned to face forward through the pilot window, while another records over the shoulder of the commander seat, which will feature the instrument panel in future missions. The third camera is situated within the cabin and will capture the launch abort system jettison during ascent, as well as parachute deployment during landing and recovery. Additionally, two high-speed external cameras will be dedicated to monitoring the parachute operations. Technicians will download and process the footage after the flight.

High-speed cameras play a crucial role in space missions, allowing engineers and scientists to analyze intricate details of complex processes. They help identify potential issues, refine designs, and improve the overall safety and success of missions. Keep in mind that the specific uses of high-speed cameras can vary depending on mission goals, technological advancements, and other factors that may have emerged since my last update.