NASA Camera Provides New Look at Corn
A plane flies over a corn field in Nebraska taking pictures with a fancy, onboard camera. In just one snapshot, the Environmental Protection Agency is learning things about this vegetable it couldn’t see with the naked eye.
This picture-perfect view of corn is all thanks to NASA technology. NASA is helping the EPA tell the difference between traditional corn and bio-engineered corn -- where genes have been inserted to make the plant resistant to insects and diseases.
The technology is called hyperspectral imaging. It cuts one snapshot, taken by a special camera, into 120 specific images. Each image shows a unique characteristic, invisible to the human eye. For example, look at a rainbow and you'll see 12 colors. With hyperspectral imaging, you'll see more than 600 different hues.
Image to right: The patented, portable hyperspectral camera and its applications were developed by the Institute for Technology Development at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Image credit: NASA/SSC
The imaging system efficiently distinguishes between the two types of corn by their unique characteristics, ensuring corn growers are meeting federal regulations that farmers planting bio-engineered corn also plant a percentage of acreage for "real" corn on which insects can feed. Without this balance, insects could become immune to the bio-engineered corn.
The plane used by the EPA has a hole cut in its belly to specially fit the camera -- about the size of a loaf of bread -- to photograph crops. It typically flies about 8,000 feet above the terrain, photographing the same corn fields every 10 days during growing season. All the images are then entered into a computer, where data-mining techniques are used to extract the information about the corn plants.
"This effort will enhance NASA’s understanding of image processing techniques to extract knowledge from hyperspectral data sets," said Brian Mitchell of NASA’s Space Partnership Development Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "The research being conducted with the corn plants has the potential to contribute significantly in our ability to grow sustainable and nutritional crops in space for our astronaut crews. This could prove vital for long duration exploration missions."
Image to right: The plane used to photograph crops has a hole cut in its belly to specially fit the hyperspectral camera. It typically flies about 8,000 feet above the terrain, photographing the same corn fields every 10 days during growing season. Image credit: NASA/SSC
The hyperspectral technology bolsters NASA's Vision for Space Exploration and long-term spaceflight goals -- a Vision to return Space Shuttles to safe flight to complete the International Space Station, and human and robotic exploration of the Solar System. "This knowledge is vital to future Mars missions," said George May, director of The Institute for Technology Development at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. "When we go to Mars, we'll have to grow our own food source. This technology enables early detection of stresses in plants, such as nutrient problems, so that corrective action can be taken to maintain the food supply."
Hyperspectral imaging also can be used in treating any astronaut wounds in space. The Institute for Technology Development is working on a portable, handheld camera that an astronaut could use to capture an image of a wound site. Using that image to identify wound severity or progress in healing would allow doctors to decide the best treatment for the wound. This imaging could save precious time in diagnosing a problem and reduce healing time by applying the appropriate treatment.
In addition, hyperspectral imaging will be able to detect mold and toxins in spacecraft -- a needed tool in long-duration missions to ensure the astronauts have a clean, healthy environment.
In the meantime, the imaging will help the EPA improve its crop monitoring capability as NASA expands its knowledge of hyperspectral technology.
The camera and its applications were developed by the Institute for Technology Development, a NASA Research Partnership Center managed by NASA's Marshall Center and is part of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, Innovative Partnerships Program.
Steve Roy, Marshall Space Flight Center