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Author Topic: Computers in Spaceflight: The NASA Experience  (Read 4779 times)
Aleksandrs Guba
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« on: March 20, 2008, 08:18:00 pm »

Image processing is one area in which NASA, primarily through work done at JPL, clearly leads the field. Ironically, even though the production of high-quality images from space probes and Landsat earth orbiters has great scientific and public relations value, the concept of digital image processing was not incorporated in the original planning of a number of early missions. Instead, it had to gain acceptance as a "tack-on" to the Ranger and Surveyor programs. Robert Nathan led the development of digital image processing in its early stages, and with the technical help of other JPL scientists, won for it a featured place on the planetary missions of the late 1960s and beyond. Of the early resistance, he later said that he "had to prove to [project management] each time what they needed" to get the most out of the first American pictures coming from space.
 
Nathan came to the California Institute of Technology as a graduate student in 1952. He earned a Ph.D. in crystallography in 1955 and soon found himself running CalTech's fledgling computer center, where he received a good grounding in the potential of digital computers. In 1959, he went to JPL to help develop imaging equipment to map the moon. When he saw the Russian pictures of the far side of the moon, he thought he could do better and began developing digital techniques for image enhancement using a small NCR 102D computer. Nathan reasoned that analog equipment, such as television cameras, could only be controlled by hardware changes, just like an analog computer can only have its internal program changed by rewiring or switching components. However, digital processing allows changes to be made with software, allowing a wider variety of enhancements.
 
Before an image can be processed, it must be put into digital form. Frederick Billingsley and Roger Brandt of JPL devised a Video Film Converter (VFC) that could transform analog video signals, such as those sent back by Ranger spacecraft, into digital data. While they supervised the construction of the device, John Morecroft of JPL used the NCR computer to begin programming processing algorithms. These events took place in 1963 ...
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