Space in a Can

Second "Blue Marble camera" gets a workout in a space simulator

Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite

Raytheon technicians move the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite into the thermal vacuum chamber for testing

It’s lonely out in space.

It's also very cold. Except when it's very hot.

Anyone or anything that travels beyond the Earth must be protected from not only the vacuum of space, but also its extremes of high and low 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 two stories tall and 13 feet in diameter. The chamber simulates the conditions that the second Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) will face in orbit when it is launched in 2017 -- wild temperature swings from -60 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit that occur as the sensor package moves in and out of the Earth’s shadow without any atmosphere to provide insulation.

“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 is taking place. “Temperatures in the quiet blackness of space can be all over the place from one moment to the next.”

technician checks paperwork

A technician checks paperwork before exposing the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite to space-like conditions in the test chamber.

VIIRS serves as the camera for 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 that was most recently tested 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 observe storm patterns with greater clarity,” said Dr. 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 weather story at any time. By improving meteorologists’ forecasting capabilities, sensors like VIIRS can help improve planning, reduce impacts on life and property associated with major weather events and improve environmental observations.

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

The heavy door provides a seal strong enough to create a vacuum inside the test chamber.

The heavy door provides a seal strong enough to create a vacuum inside the test chamber.

Published On: 10/08/2014
Last Updated: 01/05/2018