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5 min read

NASA Brings Unprecedented 3-D Views from Space to Your Computer

In the middle of the last century, going to the theatre for a 3-D film was considered a unique experience of state-of-the-art technology. People had a box of popcorn and special glasses, and were ready to jump out of their seat when something reached out from the screen to grab them.

Today, you no longer need to go find a theatre to experience three-dimensional moving pictures, but can join millions watching online. NASA is bringing the 3-D experience to your computer with a new playlist of 3-D videos on the agency’s official YouTube channel. Videos posted to the account will give viewers a more realistic representation of living and working on the International Space Station and other fascinating images from the nation’s space program.

The films of the Mercury and Apollo astronauts floating in orbit and walking on the surface of the moon are a major part of the world’s visual history. As we continue to explore space, NASA’s imaging experts have advanced the science of imaging technology so that even more breathtaking picture let viewer virtually experience the phenomenon of spaceflight.

“Delivering images from these new and exciting locations is how we share our accomplishments with the world,” said Rodney Grubbs, program manager for NASA’s Imagery Experts Program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “As the industry made advances in technology, from film to digital cameras and then cameras with better resolutions, we all benefited by seeing sharper and cleaner images from space. We also started saving on launch costs with cameras taking up less room and weight in a spacecraft, including shrinking the material on which we record images — from film to standard definition video tape to high-definition digital files on reusable storage media.”

NASA took the next step in bringing back stunning footage from space when the agency sent a 3-D HDTV camera with the crew of STS-135 to document the final space shuttle mission — the orbiter Atlantis in July 2011. The camera stayed on the space station so the various crews could record their experiences and share them with the world.

“Shooting in 3-D hasn’t changed much in 50 or 60 years,” Grubbs said. “The camera still has two distinct left and right lenses, but now we record to two separate flash memory cards, one for the left camera eye and one for the right. We don’t have to transmit taped footage and re-record it here. We can simply download an exact copy of those digital files to the ground, merge them in our editing software here, and create the same 3-D image they had in orbit.”

These new videos will provide much of the content for NASA’s online 3-D video playlist. Some of the first footage posted shows a tour of the space station and astronauts exploring water surface tension in microgravity with both the 3-D camera and a miniature HD camera in a waterproof case inside a volleyball-sized water bubble. Standard two-dimensional versions of both the tour video and the water surface tension video are also available.

All these decades of recording and documenting the astronaut experience have led to a new, unexpected scientific investigation.

“During the course of long-duration flights on station, we have noticed a degradation of our cameras,” said Grubbs, who is also the principal investigator for the 3-D camera study on orbit. “Increased radiation is part of the space environment and, while the hull of the station protects the astronauts, small radiation particles can still penetrate. They may not do any detectable harm to the crew, but these same particles will damage the camera’s sensors resulting in ‘hot’ or white pixels on the video.”

These pixels show up as white dots on images beamed back to Earth. Station cameras were replaced every eight to 12 months. However, when Grubbs and his team sent up the new 3-D camera, the number of burned out pixels they could see in footage dropped from the thousands in the standard cameras to virtually zero. It was a much cleaner image and the camera stayed in orbit for a few years.

“We eventually decided we needed to take a look and see what was physically going on with the camera, so we got permission to bring that particular one back to Earth on the first SpaceX-Dragon splashdown in 2012,” Grubbs said. “We found the overlay of the two stereo images forming the 3-D picture may have helped lessen the appearance of damaged pixels.”

More importantly, the camera performed better because it used a complementary metal-oxide semiconductor sensor, and not the more traditional charge-coupled device imaging sensor in previous cameras. Both are ways to turn light into electrical signals that eventually are saved to a memory card, but it seems like the CMOS is less susceptible to radiation and can therefore create a clearer image.

Scientists and engineers also are interested in this investigation of 3-D cameras for possible future use to determine proximity in space and for rendezvous and docking operations.

In the meantime, Grubbs and his team are now planning to send up a camera that could shoot nearly six times the resolution of an HD camera, encouraging the crew to record more video to share with the public.

Make sure to have your popcorn and 3-D glasses ready because it can get topsy-turvy working on an orbiting laboratory with no floor or ceiling.

Media Contacts:

Joshua Buck
Headquarters, Washington

Tracy McMahan
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.


Dan Huot
Johnson Space Center
Phone: 281-483-5111