An international collaboration of space agencies aims to improve cameras for future missions by adding a third dimension.
The European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA need improved and less resource-intensive systems than the conventional 2-D cameras currently deployed on spacecrafts and space rovers. Those now in use resemble the digital cameras in mobile devices but are significantly better quality.
Now, scientists at Thales Alenia Space of Belgium, Danish space sensor manufacturer Terma, and SINTEF, the largest independent research organization in Scandinavia, are conducting a study on behalf of ESA to identify better imaging options for current and future space missions.
Cameras are used everywhere in space: for docking space stations, for navigating on foreign planets, and for landing spacecraft safely. In all of these scenarios, 3-D data is required for operations, but the cameras available are incapable of providing this information when used alone. Instead, 3-D images are created by mounting several cameras together in stereo configurations, and by using complex computations to measure the third dimension. These calculations are unreliable and power-hungry, making them unattractive for space use.
Thales Alenia Space has mapped the requirements for a 3-D camera system in space; based on that, SINTEF has evaluated a variety of time-of-flight technologies to determine their relative strengths and weaknesses in such a setting. Terma will build a breadboard prototype, which will be tested and evaluated by ESA and all three companies.
The technology may also be useful in industrial settings. The real-time 3-D measurements enabled by time-of-flight technology have the potential to open new applications in industrial automation, inspection and navigation, and its relatively low cost could enable widespread adoption.