As many people who are science-minded already know, tomorrow a NASA rocket will slam into the Moon, creating a jet of debris that will be imaged in hopes of detecting water. However, even photonics-minded folks may not be aware that the two shortwave IR (SWIR) cameras that will do the imaging were produced by Sensors Unlimited (Princeton, NJ), part of Goodrich ISR Systems.
Sensors Unlimited employees will be watching television this Friday morning (and eating MoonPies as they watch) to see the images of the post-crash debris cloud.. The employees design and build the SWIR cameras, which are based on indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs) technology. The images could prove the presence of water on the Moon—a possible key to future space exploration, and certainly key to better understanding of the solar system.
Ice in the cloud, we hope
The lunar crash is part of NASA's Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission to search for water on the moon. A "shepherding spacecraft" carrying a cadre of sophisticated instruments, including the two InGaAs SWIR cameras, will orbit the moon; at the precise moment, a Centaur rocket will be launched from the spacecraft, aimed into a crater near the Moon's south pole. The rocket's impact will raise a cloud of dust and debris that is expected to contain particles of ice. The SWIR images of the debris will be transmitted back to Earth in real time for evaluation.
Because the Goodrich SWIR cameras can detect moisture contrast through dust, smoke, and fog, they can accurately record the LCROSS crash incident for precise study of the debris cloud. SWIR technology detects reflected light at wavelengths between those captured by visible and thermal cameras. The small size of the Goodrich system makes it ideal for space travel; use of advanced materials and circuitry allow it to run without cooling, unlike other night-vision technologies that need cumbersome cooling systems.
"Our 80 employees in Princeton are looking forward to making history with the LCROSS mission," said Ed Hart, vice president and general manager, Princeton operations, Goodrich ISR Systems.
While the LCROSS mission marks the first time that the Goodrich SWIR camera has made it into space, it came close to making the trip in 2005 as part of the carry-on gear of a space tourist. Princeton-based entrepreneur Greg Olsen was one of the founders of Sensors Unlimited (which merged with Goodrich in 2005) that developed the small SWIR sensing technology. In 2005, Olsen traveled with Russian cosmonauts to the International Space Station. He planned on taking along one of the company's SWIR cameras to image the Earth, seeing through clouds and capturing details of weather formations. But the U.S. government would not allow the SWIR camera to travel to Russia due to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), citing its military significance.
For more information about watching the LCROSS mission's lunar impact live on NASA TV, October 9, 2009, go to: www.lcross.arc.nasa.gov