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NASA's new camera makes rocket engines look like Hollywood CGI

NASA's new camera makes rocket engines look like Hollywood CGI


HDR video of a seriously powerful booster

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NASA has created a camera that can film slow motion footage of booming rocket engines with higher dynamic range than ever before. It’s called the High Dynamic Range Stereo X camera, or HiDyRS-X, and late last week the agency released some of its footage to the public for the first time.

The three-minute clip shows the most recent test of one of the boosters for NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System rocket in unprecedented detail. SLS will use two of these 17-story tall solid rocket boosters, each of which is capable of burning 5.5 tons of propellant per second to create 3.6 million pounds of thrust.

The problem when it comes to filming tests like these (and eventually, launches) is that the plumes of fire they produce are extremely bright. This usually leaves camera operators with two choices. They can either expose the footage for the bright plume, which will leave everything else in the shot looking dark and underexposed. Or they can expose for everything else in the shot, which leaves the plume looking bright white and void of detail.

Before and after HiDyRS-X

The HiDyRS-X camera solves this problem because the camera can capture all of this detail in one shot, and it does this in a fairly clever way. Where regular high-speed cameras usually only captures video one exposure at a time, HiDyRS-X can capture multiple exposures at a time. Those exposures are then combined into one HDR video that looks like it came straight from a Hollywood VFX house.

The camera test wasn't perfect

As beautiful as the footage is, the test actually highlighted a few failures with the current system, according to NASA. First, the camera’s automatic timer failed to go off, and so the team missed the rocket igniting. One of the operators was quick enough to flip the manual override switch, but shortly after that, the pressure being generated from the booster knocked the camera’s power source loose.

Howard Conyers, a structural dynamist at NASA who works on the project, said in a statement that he was "bummed" about the failures. But Conyers added that the footage is proof that HiDyRS-X works, and the failures gives them things to work on as NASA moves towards the first SLS test flight in 2018. "Failure during testing of the camera is the opportunity to get smarter," Conyers said. "Without failure, technology and innovation is not possible."

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