Parachute deployment is usually a fairly simple—if crucial—operation. This isn’t the case, however, for a space capsule returning to Earth, which relies on a series of pilot parachutes, mortar-fired drogue parachutes, and main parachutes, with the drogues cut loose by pyrotechnic cutters to make way for the main chutes.
To monitor parachute deployment during the Orion spacecraft’s 2014 test flight, engineers at Johnson Space Flight Center needed a compact, lightweight, high-speed video camera that could store data almost as fast as it captured it and could endure all the rigors of liftoff, the space environment, atmospheric reentry, and splashdown. They and contractor Lockheed Martin approached Pasadena, California-based Integrated Design Tools (IDT), which specializes in cameras mainly aimed at the industrial and scientific markets for uses like crash testing.
The camera the company created is capable of incredibly fast memory storage, backing up data at rates of 10 to 12 gigabits per second. At the same time, it’s small and light, rugged, radiation-hardened, waterproof, and capable of adjusting for exposure in milliseconds. To capture the deployment at various frame rates, IDT created a “mission mode,” in which the parameters for a sequence of up to 64 recording events can be entered into a spreadsheet and loaded into the camera.
Many of these improvements have already been incorporated into IDT’s Os series of cameras, in which the “O” stands for “Orion,” including the high-speed, solid-state memory developed for NASA. This and the cameras’ durability are important for capturing crash tests or military weapons testing. Even broadcast film crews can benefit from lighter cameras that don’t take all day to back up high-speed sequences. And the mission mode can allow preprogramming of recording sequences, for example when a military test is too dangerous for personnel to approach.