Student-designed, student-built camera closes eyes after successful run aboard space station

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Student-designed, student-built camera closes eyes after successful run aboard space station

UND's "eye in space" successfully completed a mission that took – from concept to reality – about 12 years.

In that time, the student-designed and -built project known as ISSAC (International Space Station Agricultural Camera), ensconced in dedicated slot on the International Space Station (ISS), marked several milestones.

ISSAC was launched into orbit on Jan. 29, 2011, and started collecting low resolution images in the summer of 2011, supported by the Upper Midwest Aerospace Consortium.

A big part of its mission in space was helping NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) monitor impacts of changes due to the recent Superstorm Sandy. Bottom line for this project: ISSAC was a one-of-a-kind earth-observing sensor mounted in the International Space Station's Windows Observation Research Facility (WORF) and was capable of re-visiting a particular ground location more frequently than other space-based assets.

ISSAC successfully captured its first high-resolution image from space last summer. The photograph – taken June 10 and depicting the western coastal region of Florida – was another milestone for the project.

"That was a fantastic day for ISSAC and the culmination of an enormous effort by a number of students, faculty, and staff at UND," said Douglas Olsen, an engineer and faculty member in the UND Department of Earth System Science and Policy (ESSP).

ISSAC, originally dubbed "AgCam," was designed primarily by electrical and mechanical engineering graduate students for installation in an Earth-observing window inside the ISS.

The primary purpose of ISSAC was to help farmers and ranchers in the U.S. Upper Midwest improve their agricultural production, while minimizing impact on the environment.

The heart of ISSAC comprises sensors that process images in three color "bands," including green, red and near-infrared. When combined for display, vegetation appears red; the brighter the red the thicker the vegetation.

Though designed to look at crops, even with its more coarse resolution of about 15-20 meters for each pixel, ISSAC imagery could be useful for disaster monitoring.

In that role, ISSAC – part of the International Disaster Charter network of space sensors, which is supported by the USGS in coordination with the United Nations – collected imagery from hurricanes to fires in northern Algeria and the western United States to flooding in Minot, N.D., Paraguay, Pakistan and across western Africa.

A student-based staff at UND's ISSAC Science Operations Center, part of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, controlled the camera remotely during primary science operations. This provided an educational component to the instrument development process. Student operators coordinated with NASA's ISS Payloads Operations and Integration Facility, located at Marshall Space Flight Center.

"We have wildly exceeded our expectations from an academic perspective," said Olsen. "More than 70 students have now worked on ISSAC in some way or another, including completion of 15 graduate-level theses and independent study projects."

ISSAC operated through January 2013, when a new imaging device, the ISS SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization System, or ISERV, swapped places with the camera at the station's WORF.

Soizik Laguette, associate professor and chair of UND ESSP, said, ultimately, the technical feat that was ISSAC was all about educating students.

She said it all was made possible by a successful collaboration of academic departments across campus, including EESP, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer sciences.

"Students have learned and continue to learn the value and excitement of science, the benefit of a multidisciplinary project, teamwork and finally the joy and pride of a success story."

Juan Miguel Pedraza

University and Public Affairs writer

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