Aerospace Develops Camera to Look at Atmospheric Glow

Bright swaths of red in the upper atmosphere, known as airglow, can be seen in this image taken from the International Space Station. (Photo: NASA)

The Earth’s atmosphere is never completely dark. Even at night, with no moon or stars, the atmosphere itself gives off light because of chemical reactions that are taking place. This phenomenon, appropriately known as airglow, is the basis for a camera an Aerospace team is developing to learn about the atmosphere and gather imagery.

The Near Infrared Airglow Camera (NIRAC) is a 45 kg device that will hitch a ride on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2018 as part of the Department of Defense Space Test Program.

“NIRAC has two mission objectives: to study lower atmospheric processes that affect space weather and also to exploit airglow for nighttime imagery applications,” said Dr. Lynette Gelinas, an Aerospace senior scientist who is leading this project along with Dr. Richard Rudy and Dr. James Hecht.

Collecting Imagery

Airglow is a natural atmospheric emission related to aurora – in both cases, light is emitted from an excited atom or molecule, although the cause of excitation is different. Also, airglow is dimmer than aurora and occurs over the entire Earth, not just the poles.

Visible airglow is rather weak, but NIRAC uses the infrared portion of the spectrum, which is much brighter. Using this illumination, the camera will be able to capture images of the ground and clouds at night, when there is no other light.

“We’re interested in using the airglow layer as a flashlight to look at the ground,” Gelinas said. “In this band, it’s pretty bright; it’s almost as if you’re looking at the ground under a full moon.”

Left to right, Dr. Lynette Gelinas, Albert Lin, and Dr. James Hecht, confer in front of a full-size 3D-printed model of NIRAC. (Photo: Eric Hamburg)

Space Weather

NIRAC will also contribute to the study of space weather. Weather on Earth, a more familiar concept to most, focuses on conditions in the lower atmosphere.

“Space weather describes conditions in the upper atmosphere and in the near-Earth space environment that can affect spacecraft, for example, ionospheric disturbances that degrade communications signals from satellites,” Gelinas said.

Airglow, which occurs at about 85 kilometers altitude, is conveniently located between the lower atmosphere and space weather and can be used to gain information about interactions between the two.

“Airglow is a chemical reaction which means that density and temperature perturbations will change the amount of light emitted, helping us study the characteristics of the upper atmosphere,” said Gelinas.

Aerospace has previously used ground-based airglow cameras to study this, but they provide a limited field of view. NIRAC will take this capability to space.

Aerospace intern Nyija Butler works on a 3D-printed NIRAC model she designed to help assembly technicians determine how to route internal NIRAC cables. (Photo: Laura Johnson)

Technical Challenges

In order to prepare the airglow camera for the ISS, the team had to downsize the focal plane array assembly, make it space compatible, and keep everything from overheating. They accomplished this, and in fact, the technology they developed could be used for other applications.

“The resulting space-qualified detector-cooler assembly will allow use of highly-capable focal plane arrays on small platforms, including small sats, hosted payloads, multiple-unit CubeSats, and unmanned aerial vehicles,” Gelinas said.

Another challenge cropped up when the team found out that NIRAC will have a tricky position on top of the ISS. This gives the camera a distorted field of view, making it difficult to compensate for the movement of the ISS and Earth during image exposure. Undaunted, the team developed a custom lens that solved the problem, and they have a patent pending.

Having overcome these technical challenges, the team is now building the camera and looking forward to the data NIRAC will collect.

“We’ll be viewing airglow perturbations as never seen before – both in sensitivity and scale size, which will require development of more sophisticated data analysis techniques,” Gelinas said. “We also expect that NIRAC observations will lead to new science investigations studying the coupling of the lower atmosphere to space.”


—Laura Johnson