First Light for ISERV Pathfinder, a New Space Station Camera

Published On: February 21, 2013 0:00 UTC-5

If you could hitch a ride on the International Space Station and claim a ‘window seat,’ you’d see 90 percent of our planet’s populated area during that adventure. A team from a NASA/USAID project called SERVIR has secured that berth for their new “Pathfinder” system, and they plan to put the spectacular view to good use.

ISERV Pathfinder was installed and activated on the space station in January and consists of a commercial camera, telescope, and pointing system. The camera is positioned to look through the Destiny module’s Earth-facing window. Acting on commands from the ground, it can photograph specific areas of the Earth’s surface as the space station passes over them. Pathfinder is primarily an engineering exercise to help scientists gain valuable information about how a more capable future instrument might operate. But hopes are for a future system, and perhaps even ISERV Pathfinder itself, to provide imagery and data to help officials in developing nations monitor impacts of disasters such as floods, landslides, and forest fires. Its images could also help decision-makers address other environmental issues.

Here is its first offering of “eye-candy” – not bad for a rookie.

 First Light Image
This ‘first light’ image from ISERV shows the mouth of the Rio San Pablo in Veraguas,
Panama, as it empties into the Golfo de Montijo. This wetland supports an important local
fishery and provides habitat for many mammals and reptiles as well as several species of
nesting and wintering water birds. (The image was captured on GMT 047 18:44; Saturday,
February 16th, 2013, 2:44 CST. Image dimensions are roughly 14.6 km x 12.5 km. Area is
approximately 183 km2, or 71 mi2. North is to the upper right.) [Download 11.5MB TIF image]

“ISERV’s full potential is yet to be seen, but we hope ISERV or a successor will really make a difference in people’s lives,” says ISERV Principal Investigator Burgess Howell. “For example, if an earthen dam gives way in Bhutan, we want to be able to show officials, with our images, where the bridge is out, or where a road is washed out or a power substation is inundated. This kind of information is critical to focus and speed rescue efforts.”

An operational system with Pathfinder’s optical characteristics could, in many cases, acquire near-real-time images of areas on the ground and transmit them within hours of the event.

“In ideal conditions, the party requesting the data could receive them within 3 hours,” says Howell. “But in some cases, because of the station’s changing orbit, it might be several days before a viewing opportunity arises. Even then the data could be used to analyze environmental changes the disaster causes, and that’s important.”

“ISERV could become a tool to enhance and expand NASA’s hazard and disasters work across the whole disaster management cycle,” adds Frank Lindsay, NASA Applied Sciences Disasters Program Manager. “The bottom line is that this camera opens up some opportunities we did not have before and is clearly a pathfinder for more assets on the ISS for our applications.”

Here’s how ISERV is expected to work.

Pathfinder’s special software knows where the space station is at each moment as well as its attitude and direction. With this information it calculates the next chance to view a particular area. If there’s a good viewing opportunity, the SERVIR team will send instructions to the camera. Pathfinder will take a series of high-resolution photographs of the area at 3-7 frames per second, totaling as many as 100 images per pass.

“The camera’s nominal resolution is 2.8 meters,” explains Howell. “That’s about the size of a cow — and potentially valuable for disaster assessments.”

At first, the instrument will be tasked only by SERVIR and its hubs in Mesoamerica, East Africa, and the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region. After proving itself, ISERV could be made available to the broader disaster community and the NASA science community.

No one is certain of ISERV’s full capabilities. It is Pathfinder’s mission to reveal its own limitations, which will help the ISERV team identify measures for improvements. The team is now putting their charge through its paces to determine how it behaves and what it can do. They will be determining how the geometry of the window affects its imagery, how much sunlight the instrument needs to capture clear images, how the atmosphere affects that clarity, and more. The exposure, time of day, and location, as well as the land cover (savannah, rivers, forests, etc.) present, will be documented, catalogued, and archived for every scene acquired.

This characterization phase will last several weeks to a few months.

After that, the beautiful view from Destiny could be much more than eye-candy.


 ISERV and ISS Astronaut
ISERV ‘floats’ alongside ISS Astronaut Chris Hadfield
before installation  


ISERV, short for ISS SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization System, is a result of a collaboration between the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and NASA’s ISS program, managed at the NASA Johnson Space Center. Teledyne Brown Engineering, headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama, was instrumental in development of the Pathfinder concept and led the effort for development of flight and ground software for payload control.

The system was installed in the Window Observational Research Facility (WORF) adjacent to the Destiny module window. WORF is the modified EXPRESS rack that facilitates access to the window. It provides an enclosed light-safe volume, a payload support shelf, access to the controller for the external Destiny window shutter, and access to ISS power and communication systems. Before WORF was installed, astronauts’ favorite perch for Earth-gazing was this optical quality window, which boasts the highest quality optics ever flown on a human-occupied spacecraft. Astronauts Tom Jones and Marsha Ivins said it was so clear on orbit they felt they could fall through it like it wasn’t there.

SERVIR is a Spanish acronym meaning “to serve.” Also known as the Regional Visualization and Monitoring System, SERVIR serves by providing satellite data and tools to environmental decision makers in developing countries. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville manages the SERVIR project for NASA.