Revolutionary Camera Captures NASA's Most Powerful Rocket in Amazing Detail

When digital cameras were first introduced, one way they struggled to compete with cameras using film was in dynamic range, the ability to capture data from a range of extreme sources both light and dark. Digital cameras have come a long way since then, but they still struggle when separate parts of the frame are illuminated differently — as anyone who's tried using their smartphone to snap a picture indoors near a bright window can attest, you end up with part of the picture either washed out or obscured by darkness.

NASA's High Dynamic Range Stereo X (HiDyRS-X) project, however, has produced one of the most advanced cameras ever developed. It shoots video images that are high-definition, 3-D and slow-motion, and the dynamic range between the brightest brights and darkest darks it can capture at the same time is serious business.


HiDyRS-X creates its composite image by recording multiple, slow-motion video exposures at once, then layers the results together to create something more palatable to the human eye. Think of it as the same idea behind the HDR setting on smartphone cameras... but turned up way past 11.

To give the new camera a workout, NASA shot a recent test ignition of the Space Launch System (SLS) booster in the Utah desert. The SLS is the most powerful rocket humanity's yet attempted to build — it's designed to eventually carry the Orion spacecraft to Mars and beyond.

As the images below show, what you might ordinarily end up with when photographing the intense burn of a rocket ends up looking like a shaft of super-bright nothingness rather than capturing the detail within the flame.

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An image of the rocket plume captured without using the HiDyRS-X camera.
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An image captured using the HiDyRS-X camera shows significant detail within the plume.

"I was amazed to see the ground support mirror bracket tumbling and the vortices shedding in the plume," Howard Conyers, the innovative camera's lead developer, said in a NASA press release. "The team was able to gather interesting data from the slow motion footage, and Conyers also discovered something else by speeding up the playback."

The camera was specifically created for rocket science, and will let rocket scientists analyze not just what's going on within the plume, but at the same time observe the actual components of a rocket and how they handles all the stress of the ignition. The team of NASA Stennis Space Center engineers who developed HiDyRS-X are already at work on a second, more advanced prototype.

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A test version of the booster for NASA's new Space Launch System deep-space rocket.
Orbital ATK
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NASA conducted the SLS booster test in the Utah desert on Tuesday, June 28.
NASA/Bill Ingalls