CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- The SCIFLI (Scientifically Calibrated In Flight Imagery) team, based at NASA's Langley Research Center In Hampton, Va., is preparing to capture high definition video and thermal imagery of the SpaceX launch as the Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon capsule climb through the atmosphere on their way to the International Space Station. Launch of this historic first commercial spacecraft carrying cargo to ISS is scheduled no earlier than May 7.
The team will have sophisticated optical systems stationed on the ground near Daytona Beach and for the first time ever on board a ship, the Freedom Star. The Freedom Star and its sister ship, Liberty Star, which were built to recover space shuttle solid rocket boosters, will also track the spacecraft during the mission using NASA diagnostic radar systems. Both ships will be off the coast of the northeastern United States. They are home ported at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station adjacent to Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA has contracted with Celestial Computing Incorporated (CCI) of Boston, Mass., to outfit the Freedom Star with a gyro-stabilized kineto tracking mount and specialized hardware to protect against the harsh conditions the system will face in the north Atlantic.
"This ship-based imaging capability is unique," said NASA Langley Principal Investigator Tom Horvath. "NASA did not possess a shipboard gyro-stabilized tracker with the large aperture/long focal length optics coupled to state-of-the-art detectors."
NASA will train the two imaging systems at the spacecraft to help monitor its performance and capture key events during ascent, including release of the Dragon capsule and solar panel deployments. This will be the first use of a ship-based high definition visual and infrared imaging system to support Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) project flights. The COTS project is part of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, led out of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The team tested the new optical system on the Freedom Star during a day sail from Cape Canaveral. They checked out the ship's communications system, the NASA diagnostic radar, and kineto tracking mount to confirm that these systems are ready to support the mission. "They work together sort of like synchronized swimmers," said project manager Melinda Cagle from NASA Langley.
The day sail also gave the SCIFLI team a chance to gain experience operating at sea by performing maintenance on the system, confirming communications links, and confirming the design of the mounting system and environmental enclosure.
The SCIFLI team builds upon the success of the Hypersonic Thermodynamic Infrared Measurements (HYTHIRM) team by expanding capability while reducing cost. HYTHIRM has a history of capturing challenging thermal images at speeds as high as Mach 18. The project successfully recorded the space shuttle heat signature during re-entry on seven different Shuttle missions, using ground and airborne systems.