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UND mulls new cam for orbiting AgCam

Technical difficulties have hindered UND's AgCam since it went into orbit in November, and university and NASA officials think they might have to replace the camera with a new unit.

Technical difficulties have hindered UND's AgCam since it went into orbit in November, and university and NASA officials think they might have to replace the camera with a new unit.

Doug Olsen, the project manager at UND, said his team, which includes students, will continue troubleshooting for a few months until a final decision is made on the replacement.

For now, they'll try to figure out why the camera keeps sending over corrupted images instead of the high-res near-infrared images of farmland it's supposed to. These images would help farmers tell healthy crops from those that aren't and apply fertilizer and pesticide more efficiently.

The whole system, cameras and computers, went to the International Space Station after seven years of development and lots of testing.

"It all worked perfectly before launch," Olsen said.

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After the past few months of troubleshooting, his team has concluded that everything does work perfectly, except for a key component: The data link between the high-resolution camera and the computer that operates it.

If the AgCam system were on the ground, it probably would not be so difficult to fix. Everything is much harder when it's in space. Engineers have to use the astronauts as their proxy and the astronauts weren't the ones that designed the system.

Olsen said it's like you have lights go out on the Christmas tree and you have to figure out what the problem is standing across the room while wearing a blindfold. You'd have to ask a helper to describe the lights to you and ask him to try various tweaks to make the lights go back on again.

Now imagine if the helper is a busy astronaut who has dozens of other tasks to accomplish and you have to go through NASA to schedule each fix.

UND students have been troubleshooting by staring at wiring diagrams and trying to replicate the problem with an AgCam prototype that's on the ground, according to Olsen. They then get concurrence from NASA engineers before an astronaut gets tasked.

On the bright side, Olsen said, "You learn a lot more when things don't quite go right. So, I think it's been very educational."

Still, it'd be nice to get AgCam working before next year's growing season.

It's very likely that a new camera would do the trick, according to Olsen. The one that's not working uses a data link called "Camera Link" that involves a lot of complicated wiring. A new camera would use the simpler Firewire system, commonly used to deliver digital videos to personal computers. That system has only been recently available for the high-resolution camera used in AgCam.

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According to one industry estimate, each pound of cargo going into low-earth orbit where the space station is costs about $5,000. The camera in question, equipped with 300-millimeter lens, the same size as those big telephoto lenses sports photographers use, weighs about 10 pounds, according to Olsen.

He said he thinks NASA would be OK with that. "Their priorities include keeping existing experiments going. We're already there, and if we have a small amount of mass that would get us working again, NASA would look favorably on that sort of thing as long as it's small."

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: SCIENCE
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