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April 28, 2005

John C. Stennis Space Center
Stennis Space Center, MS 39529-6000
(228) 688-3341


Technology developed at NASA's Stennis Space Center to measure characteristics of cotton fields has now been tapped for induction into the Space Foundation's 2005 Space Technology Hall of Fame.

The Portable Hyperspectral Sensor array originated at the Institute for Technology Development (ITD) at Stennis Space Center (SSC) in South Mississippi. It was designed to help Mississippi Delta farmers use remote sensing to detect plant stress and target insecticide applications over their crops. Hyperspectral sensors use a special camera to split a snapshot into 120 color-specific images, enabling identification of unique characteristics of crops that are invisible to the human eye.

The Portable Hyperspectral Sensor enabled the ability to "see" crops in more than just a few bands of color. Like an artist enabled by a wide range of paint colors, the sensor could give a much more complete representation of their targets, said Rodney McKellip of NASA's Applied Sciences Directorate (ASD) at SSC. McKellip is ASD's project manager for agriculture applications.

NASA joined forces with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to champion this use of remote sensing technology to be applied to "precision" farming method in a program called Ag 20/20. The program funded the integrated solution of mounting ITD's Portable Hyperspectral Sensors and other instruments on airplanes for such tasks as finding insect pest habitats, locating specific weeds in soybean fields, determining soil properties, and checking plants for nutrient stress. Evaluations of various uses of the hyperspectral sensor resulted in information that the farmer could use to make better farming decisions.

"NASA was responding to the demands of the growers, who told us they needed more in-depth knowledge than traditional remote sensing devices were providing," said McKellip. "Hyperspectral sensors can provide information on details on much finer spatial and spectral scales, and capture subtle yet important changes in crop health."

ITD technology development resulted in a portable version of a hyperspectral instrument based on the existing design that was much larger and heavier. The lighter, portable unit used in Ag 20/20 opened avenues for other applications of the system. ITD President and CEO George May said medical imaging applications hold the most promise, including those that support NASA's Vision for Space Exploration and long-term spaceflight goals.

For instance, establishing the subtle difference between second- and third-degree burns can shorten the time it takes to correctly treat victims. "That's important for NASA and its astronauts. We know wounds don't heal as fast in space as on Earth. The more we can do to help astronauts heal in the harsh environment of outer space, of course, the better off we'll be," May said.

Hyperspectral sensors can help ophthalmologists study the movement of oxygen to the back of the eye, giving an accurate, noninvasive picture of an astronaut's health. Early detection of molds and toxins growing aboard space vehicles could keep astronauts healthy in space.

McKellip called the system's versatility key to its winning the prestigious Space Foundation's Hall of Fame induction. The foundation is one of the world's premier nonprofit organizations supporting space activities, space professionals and education. The Hall of Fame honors innovators who transform space-based technology into products and services that improve life on Earth.

"We like to say SSC was the birthplace of this sensor," May said. "If it weren't for the funding from NASA, and their believing in us, it wouldn't have happened. If it weren't for the agriculture community using and needing remote sensing technologies, it wouldn't have happened."

The sensor array was inducted into the Hall of Fame at an awards dinner in Colorado Springs, Colo., on April 7. Along with Mark Nall of Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama (which funded ITD's medical applications research for the sensors), McKellip, May and five of May's ITD colleagues were honored for their work to develop and commercialize the sensors: Jim Beach, David Lewis, Mark Lanoue, David Smith and Chengye Mao.


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