Cutting-Edge Sensor Flies into Earth Science
Aerospace's David Gutierrez sits next to the Mako sensor on a Twin Otter airplane. (Photo: Elisa Haber/The Aerospace Corporation)
Airborne infrared hyperspectral imaging may sound like a 12-syllable piece of technobabble, but it’s actually a useful technology that the military has employed for years. It involves flying a sensor over an area to collect data on the thermal infrared radiation (heat) that is emitted by the land and atmosphere below.
“It turns out that different chemical compounds absorb different wavelengths of light,” said Dr. George Scherer, director of the Imaging Spectroscopy Department. “By analyzing the pattern that we see … I can tell you what the materials on the ground are; I can tell you what the gases are in the atmosphere.”
While the military uses this capability to, for example, spot vehicles on the ground, there are certainly many other applications. Aerospace is therefore looking to expand its airborne infrared hyperspectral imaging capabilities into earth science applications, such as mineral mapping, global warming studies, and crop health analysis.
Recently Aerospace took a sensor known as Mako on a series of test flights over California and into Nevada to collect data on industrial sites, agricultural areas, and other locations of interest. Mako is a cutting-edge sensor that the team sees as the first in a new generation of this type of sensor.
“There’s really nothing like it right now,” Scherer said. “It really is a step beyond what anyone else has built.”
Aerospace’s work with these sensors stretches back to the 1990s, when a team led by Dr. John Hackwell built the Spatially Enhanced Broadband Array Spectrograph System, or SEBASS. The endeavor grew to include personnel from the Space Science Applications Laboratory, the Sensor Systems Subdivision, and the Advanced Technology Division. Aerospace and others have since developed other sensors, but they don’t go much beyond the capability of SEBASS.
“Somewhere in the 2006 frame, we looked back and realized all these sensors that have been built were for the most part reworks of SEBASS, so we went to [Aerospace management] and basically recommended a corporate research initiative to build the next generation sensor, because it doesn’t look like anybody else is,” Scherer said. “And so that’s how Mako came about.”