Published: 20 Dec 2011
Six months ago, Dutch astronaut André Kuipers approached ESA with the request for a mechanism able to photograph a view that, until very recently, was only available to those aboard the International Space Station. He wanted an instrument that could take a picture of our Earth at night. While that is a simple enough wish to summarise, the reality of what it demands is quite the opposite. It called for sophisticated technology, built with expertise, built with expert knowledge of the ISS – and built with exceptional speed, as Kuipers planned to take it on the Station with him during the December 2011 launch. For that, cosine was contacted and we are proud to say that we managed to build such a device that is going to be launched tomorrow.
That was six months ago. Soon, the NightPOD will be orbiting the Earth. A fully functional, one-of-a-kind product designed specifically for the ISS Cupola, it is to be the first payload installed in the module since it was built last year. cosine developed the NightPOD with the brief to create a camera capable of taking a high-resolution photograph of the Earth while in the sun’s shadow. Why in the shade? A picture of our planet in darkness illuminates certain issues more than sunlight ever can. In particular, it is in the dark that our otherwise invisible impact suddenly becomes apparent: artificial light. Far from the traditional tranquil image of greens and blues, the glowing network we have created forms the unnatural impression that this is a planet that never sleeps. A worldwide, high-resolution map of manmade light is a completely original concept, and would allow its effect on the environment to be examined in detail.
The NightPOD fulfils this brief and more. To take such pictures aboard the ISS is no small feat, however. It came with its own challenges. For one, there is a very good reason why spaceships are likened to boats. The International Space Station is the size of a football field, travelling at 7 km/s and bobbing up and down in empty space as if floating on open water. It oscillates from 300 to 400km above the earth, with docking and departing rockets all contributing to the turbulence. In addition to the shifting platform, a clear, crisp picture of the Earth lighting up the night sky also requires the camera to focus on one spot for longer, and compensate for the relative speed without sacrificing quality. cosine was out to build a device that did not just take photos, it had to take sharp photos. It is difficult to imagine circumstances less suited to the task.
However, it took cosine just six months – start to finish – to develop a product which was. The NightPOD is not only capable of dealing with such an inhospitable environment, but is also specifically designed to be used by astronauts and their crew. Both ESA’s André Kuipers and NASA’s Dom Pettit got on well with the technology and are very enthusiastic and eager to put it to use. The reason cosine was trusted with creating an all-round product that is state-of-the-art, innovative and intuitive on such a tight schedule is that this what they are known for. They succeeded because they are a compact company with a team of PhD physicists and engineers, who together represent a broad range of skills and specific disciplines. They boast a track record of 12 years worth of experience, and an established history with the ESA Human Spaceflight Directorate ever since the pioneering 3D cameras ERB and ERB2 for the ISS. cosine Project Manager Marco Esposito said: “We are a company that can make use of the best people around. A combination of experience, professionalism and very bright people allows us to find a balance between the strict rules for space hardware certification and cutting-edge technology. It also means we can achieve it faster than anyone else.
Astrofein dedicated the short few months to building and rigorously testing the mechanism to ensure it passed NASA’s stringent safety requirements before the final run in the Johnson Space Center. The project, which was funded by the Netherlands Space Office and the German government, is the result of careful attention to detail, real devotion to the trade and true innovation; nothing like this has been done before. Kuipers’ mission aboard the ISS is to span the December 2011 to May 2012 period, and together with him, the NightPOD. During that time they are to capture a mapped-out view of our planet that few have seen, but which is saturated with our visible presence. It took six months to build, and with now six more to collect the data, the results are sure to be as reliably extraordinary as the circumstances under which they were devised.