How RocketCam Works

An example of the stunning view made possible by RocketCam
An example of the stunning view made possible by RocketCam

Space exploration has captivated Americans for decades. Perhaps Captain Kirk of "Star Trek" said it best when he called space "the final frontier." We stand on the edge of a wilderness so tantalizingly close and mysterious, we can't help but risk our lives to know more about it.

But until it's cheap enough to hitch rides to the moon, the public will have to settle for vicarious space exploration via video. In fact, movies and space exploration have been connected for a long time. One of the first popular movies, "A Trip to the Moon," made in 1902, is a fantastical tale of lunar exploration. Sixty-seven years later, televisions glowed with video feed of the first manned moon landing, fueling the public's imagination about space travel.

But video's place in space goes beyond thrills. Today's ultra connected world revolves around the idea that the more informed we are, the better the decisions we make. This particularly rings true with space exploration, where tiny problems can trigger disastrous consequences -- think the tragedy of the space shuttle Columbia.

In 2003, the shuttle and its seven astronauts burned up upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. The source of the problem with the Columbia shuttle was a piece of insulation that fell from the surface of the external fuel tank 81 seconds after liftoff and damaged the left wing. NASA engineers viewed video of this mishap, but it was filmed from a distance, and they concluded that the insulation didn't cause any serious damage. They were wrong.

Had the shuttle been equipped with a RocketCam during the launch, the Columbia's wing might have been properly diagnosed and the disaster avoided. The RocketCam is an ordinary video camera with an extraordinary purpose. It's attached to the shuttle and during takeoff provides a crucial video view -- the view from the launching vehicle down to the ground. In fact, the RocketCam caught video of insulation flying off the Discovery shuttle fuel tank in the 2005 return-to-flight launch. But that video helped engineers make the informed decision that -- this time -- the insulation didn't cause any damage.

So how does this basic video camera endure space travel? And why is its video feed so valuable? Read the next page to find out.

Components of RocketCam

RocketCam camera equipment
RocketCam camera equipment
Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation

The RocketCam doesn't look like anything special. But don't let the primitive exterior fool you -- this gadget is rugged. It can endure extreme speeds, vibration and temperatures.

Beneath its clunky exterior, the basic camera is about 2.8 ounces (about 80 grams) and four inches (10 centimeters) long [source: Space Show, Fine]. RocketCams use professional-grade Sony miniature color video cameras (in the past, the XC-999 model). But you can't just take one of these cameras and strap it to a rocket. To make the camera ultra durable, Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation takes the camera apart and puts it back together again. During this process, it ruggedizes (or strengthens) the camera, bolting it to a platform with added features that make it tough enough to withstand extreme environments. The camera's casing has an aerodynamic design, and a layer of insulation foam on its surface helps to protect it from extreme temperatures.

The Ecliptic engineers also add technical features. For instance, every RocketCam that is built to take a ride on the external tank of a shuttle has a radio transmitter and antenna to send the video information down to the ground from space using electromagnetic radio waves. This allows the information to be sent quickly to multiple receivers. The camera may also incorporate various battery sizes or power support boards and other adaptable features, depending on the use.

RocketCams may be either analog or digital. These terms simply refer to how the visual data is recorded and reproduced. In analog recording, an older method, the device records information in continuous variations of waves. Digital technology doesn't use waves, but rather records information in numbers, such as in 1s and 0s. Digital versions of the RocketCam are more sophisticated with added features, such as "store-and-forward" viewing, which allows those on board to review video, similar to how a TiVo works. It also enables improved radio frequency (RF) bandwidth, which means it uses the available bandwidth more efficiently.

Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation

Digital models take in a large amount of information in order to capture things like payload separation and to aid in failure investigations. To accommodate that, the digital RocketCam compresses this information to send it over electromagnetic radio waves down to Earth. (Although digital technology doesn't use electromagnetic waves to record information, it can use those waves to send information it as recorded elsewhere.) Compression of digital information involves finding common repeated patterns and shortening them, as you'll learn in How File Compression Works. To carry out the process, the engineers incorporate a compressor which uses a Digital Signal Processor chip to format the information.

Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation RocketCam Analog Video System Pod.
Ecliptic Enterprises Corporation

Although they are most known for their positions on the outside of a launching vehicle, some RocketCams offer even more information about a space launch by recording the interior of a ship. SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded manned ship to go to space, used two interior RocketCams for the cockpit in addition to cameras on the exterior. These internal cameras don't require protective casing.

When used on space shuttles, NASA mounts RocketCams to the exterior fuel tank and on the two solid rocket boosters. These structures release from the shuttle after takeoff, so the camera only hitches a ride temporarily on a shuttle. But by this time, the vital information has already traveled to the ground.

At a mere 5 pounds (about 2,267 grams), this camera serves a lot of purposes [source: Space Show]. Read on to find out why it's so important.


Value of RocketCam

The RocketCam allows ground engineers to view certain actions, like the release of the solid rocket boosters, shown here.
The RocketCam allows ground engineers to view certain actions, like the release of the solid rocket boosters, shown here.

When monitoring the data of a rocket launch, the faster the information travels, the better. RocketCam can send live feeds of the launch, and this situational awareness means ground engineers know what's happening in real time. And they can make fast, informed decisions if something goes wrong.

RocketCam can be a highly valuable tool for research in space as well. As part of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (CROSS) mission, NASA plans to send a rocket to the moon -- in fact, the plan is for the rocket to crash into the moon in an attempt to stir up debris. This crash, they suspect, could release water ice. Or, if not, analyses of the debris might offer clues as to whether there are traces of water on the moon. The RocketCam will aid in the research. Unlike with shuttle launches, it won't be released on the way. It will be attached to a small spacecraft that separates before impact so that the camera can send NASA video feed of the crash.

Public relations is also a major part of the business of space exploration, and many consider video the best way to get people excited about it. Watching video of a launch from the ground is only so interesting to television audiences. But give them a video view from the rocket itself, and they're riveted.

Here, the RocketCam shows a view from the external fuel tank as shuttle releases it.

Public appeal goes beyond NASA and shuttle launches -- private companies can help drive space tourism with video, and they use RocketCams as well. After the Columbia disaster in 2003, NASA imposed a hiatus on its shuttle program, meaning private launches got more attention. One of the most famous of these private uses was for suborbital SpaceShipOne, the first manned flight to space altitude by a private pilot in June 2004. To help encourage the expanding field of private space exploration, Ecliptic has made efforts to keep the RocketCam affordable (an easy endeavor given that the company doesn't manufacture the camera technology, just its rugged casing) [source: Fine].

RocketCam has been included on more than 60 launches, including rockets (orbital and suborbital), spacecraft and shuttles. A lot of these launches include non-space-related projects as well, which we'll talk about next.

Other RocketCam Projects

Here, RocketCam (left) mounts to the XCOR Aerospace EZ-Rocket plane. On the right is the view from that RocketCam in flight.
Here, RocketCam (left) mounts to the XCOR Aerospace EZ-Rocket plane. On the right is the view from that RocketCam in flight.

Although most famous for its use on space shuttles and other space launches, RocketCam also hitches rides on other kinds of projects.

Ecliptic provides the RocketCam for use in testing of experimental aircraft. For example, it has been included on flights of the XCOR Aerospace EZ-Rocket, an innovative rocket-powered plane. This plane takes off on rockets, can restart its engines in midflight, and to land, it simply makes a dead-stick glide (meaning without the use of propulsion) to the ground [source: XCOR]. Ecliptic also provides RocketCams to the rocket suppliers that launch spy satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office, a government intelligence agency, for classified projects [source: Ridenoure].

The RocketCam has been involved in high-altitude balloon projects, such as one demonstrated at a Global Space League event to encourage educational projects in aviation. In this project, a RocketCam captured the trip of a high-altitude balloon carrying a transmitter developed by Santa Clara University. In addition, the RocketCam has been involved in the attempts to fly the QinetiQ1, an ambitious high-altitude balloon. Engineers behind the project wanted to break the world record for high-altitude human flight by using a helium-filled balloon spanning 9 acres (392,040 square feet or 43,560 square yards) to carry the pilots up to 25 miles (40 kilometers) high [source: Cooke].

In 2003, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of aviation, engineers constructed a replica of the original Wright Flyer II, the plane that made the first powered flight (though with a more stable design). RocketCam was included on test flights of the replica.

But the RocketCam isn't just for the air, either; it has worked as a situational awareness and research aid for land and water projects as well. Most notably, the North American Eagle car, which could break the land speed record, has been equipped with the cameras [source: Ridenoure]. (Read more about this project in our article, How the North American Eagle Works.) In addition, the RocketCam has even been taken out on a military marine project. Using infrared technology, the cameras have helped measure the accuracy of laser beams in boat target practice.

Overall, it's obvious that the role of the RocketCam has become increasingly important in space exploration as well as aviation and other projects. Take a look at the next page to find out more about space shuttles and rockets, and to view more RocketCam videos.

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