Clear Pictures from Space

BY LAURA ABPLANALP, CIVIL AND COMMERCIAL IMAGING DIRECTOR
Jan 30, 2019

Humanity’s first views of the world from space were modest—grainy images from a video camera strapped to a V-2 rocket launched from the White Sands Missile Range in 1946. But that experimental flight would push back a celestial curtain, proving the capability of space-based imagery and driving the appetite for more, higher-quality pictures.

As we mark the 60th anniversary of NASA’s founding, we also observe six decades of L3Harris working hand in hand with the administration to uncover the vast unknowns of space. Imaging systems have been, and are still, at the forefront of those efforts, providing ever-advancing visuals of First image from space places that are largely out of physical reach. Our work over the decades has reflected themes that are still important today—addressing the needs of NASA and other customers while innovating ways to protect space access for responsiveness and resiliency.

By 1959, the fledgling agency called NASA had taken up the gauntlet and tasked its Explorer 6 satellite with capturing the first images of Earth from orbit. Less than a decade later, NASA was turning the lens away from Earth, as the Lunar Orbiter mapped the moon in preparation for the Apollo missions. In the 1990s, we were receiving astounding up-close images of Mars from the Sojourner Rover.

Partnering for Innovation

Partnering with NASA to meet the increasingly complex system requirements and expectations of its programs—and others inspired by the agency’s exciting missions—has required L3Harris to push the boundaries of technology. As a result, over the past half-century we have significantly evolved our capabilities in imaging system design, payload manufacturing, and integration and testing. We have provided integral systems on commercial Earth observation satellites, including the first, IKONOS, and DigitalGlobe’s WorldView series. L3Harris’ SpaceView™ system on WorldView-3 has raised the bar with the highest-resolution and fastest-scanning capability available commercially, making better images available to everyone for a wide range of planning and monitoring applications.

L3Harris played a crucial role in integrating and testing the primary mirror of NASA’s next universe exploration vehicle, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Consisting of 18 segments that will unfold and align in space, the mirror is more than 21 feet across—the largest ever launched. When operational, JWST will provide a vastly expanded observation area that will include galaxies born soon after the Big Bang and give us amazing insights that will benefit all of humanity. The knowledge of JWST’s segmented mirror technology paves the way for future space telescopes and even more exciting discoveries.

Building on Experience

With experiences like these as our foundation, L3Harris is making additional research and development investments in advancing space-based imaging systems and providing our customers with a range of options to draw from—a mix of traditional and non-traditional, time-tested, and innovative approaches to better match solutions to needs.

For example, in the case of space telescopes with segmented mirrors, we are advancing system deployment and control, like segment-to-segment sensing and precision mirror actuation. We are also coming up with new and innovative manufacturing techniques and applying those findings to replicate mirrors used in imaging systems. This allows us to quickly produce segments to an elevated performance standard prior to applying finishing processes, reducing cycle time and costs compared to traditional methods.

We are applying our lessons learned to other areas in our Space and Intelligence Systems business as well. Our work on small satellites (smallsats) includes scaling telescopes to fit the reduced footprint, opening the door for new users and applications, as well as more frequent launches. Smallsats can also serve as excellent demonstration platforms for segmented systems and accelerate new technology implementation.

What’s Next?

Anticipation is mounting for what is coming in the next wave of universe exploration. The JWST mission will be the next to provide a new generation of science and insights into our universe, but other new capabilities are also on the way. Another program promises to uncover some of the greatest mysteries of the universe.

The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will provide the most expansive images of the universe ever taken, a key to learning more about both dark energy and dark matter.

These are two of the most enduring puzzles of the cosmos. WFIRST will take a wide view of the universe, along the lines of a panoramic view of space compared to the WFIRST telephoto views of Hubble and JWST. WFIRST will also find new exoplanets— those outside of our solar system—and new galaxies and other celestial bodies.

L3Harris is executing the overall preparation of the telescope hardware to meet exacting mission requirements. That includes the 2.4-meter primary mirror and other optics and structures. L3Harris developed the hardware to enable the two scientific instruments on WFIRST and successfully carried out mirror cold-temperature testing.

The close partnership between L3Harris and NASA continues in other ways beyond telescopes. NASA’s new series of manned space missions, the first since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, will be taking humans and their imaging technology to the moon, Mars, and beyond. L3Harris is providing the astronaut audio system for the next human deep space mission, scheduled to launch in 2022 on board the Orion spacecraft.

New Demands

Certainly, NASA has come a long way since Explorer 6’s onboard scanning device, and so has L3Harris—by answering the call for better image resolution and faster delivery.

Today we have imagers that collect pictures of the earth so clear that you can identify plant types on its surface. Soon we will have the technology to collect light from the very dawn of the universe.

By broadening our range of solutions to include innovative advanced optics, sensors, and manufacturing techniques, L3Harris is addressing tomorrow’s demands for more resilient imaging solutions, faster deployment and reduced production costs.

Click here to learn more about L3Harris’ NASA mission experience and share in our celebration of the agency’s 60th anniversary. First image from space courtesy of the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range.