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Space in a can: Creating extreme conditions on Earth

Second “Blue Marble Camera” gets the ultimate test in space simulator

It�s tough in space. Just ask Sandra Bullock, who played an astronaut in peril in the film Gravity. Kept in isolation on the set for hours at a time, strapped into a tight harness, the actress told an interviewer, "There's no one around, you're frustrated, you're in pain, you're lonely.�

Imagine how she�d feel in the vacuum of real space, with its insane extremes of hot and cold temperatures.

Those conditions are being recreated at Raytheon, where technicians have bottled a space-like environment to make sure the world�s most advanced weather sensors can hold up to the hardships of Earth orbit. Think of it as �space in a can.� A very large can. Thermal vacuum testing is conducted inside a barrel-shaped chamber standing two stories tall and 13 feet wide in diameter. It simulates the airless conditions and wild temperature swings the sensor will face when it is launched in 2017. Inside, the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, or VIIRS, experiences space-like temperatures, ranging from �185 degrees to 50 degrees Celsius in.

�The chamber is about as close as anything on Earth to experiencing the unforgiving conditions of space,� said Shannon Hunt, who runs the Raytheon lab in California where the environmental testing will take place. �Temperatures in the quiet blackness of space can be all over the place from one moment to the next.�

VIIRS serves as the camera lens of the Joint Polar Satellite System. It not only captures stunning �Blue Marble� images of Earth, but provides critical data for weather forecasting, climate monitoring and disaster response.

The VIIRS unit currently undergoing hot and cold testing is the second of its kind built by Raytheon. The first was launched aboard the NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP satellite in October 2011. With innovative technology like its day night band, which can detect objects 100 times dimmer than previous space systems, VIIRS is establishing a new baseline for nighttime and low light imagery.

�The nighttime images are so remarkably crisp, weather forecasters are able to monitor weather conditions round the clock and predict storm patterns with greater clarity,� said Jeff Puschell, Raytheon�s chief scientist on the effort.

VIIRS collects data in 22 bands of the electromagnetic spectrum from visible light to infrared, each of which tells a different part of the Earth�s climate story at any time. By improving meteorologists� forecasting capabilities, sensors like VIIRS can help improve planning, and reduce costs, associated with major weather events.

�At this very minute, perhaps somewhere way over the Atlantic, a major summer storm is in its infancy,� explained Puschell. �VIIRS will tell us where it is, where it�s headed and how fast it�s traveling, information that could save lives and save costs.�

Predicting disaster before it strikes. It�s not just a good premise for a Sandra Bullock movie. It�s a great idea for weather forecasting, too.

Last Updated: 06/30/2014

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