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Aboard the International Space Station, Super-Resolution Camera to Capture Images of Earth

by Andrew Doerfler

In the culmination of years of design, development and planning, a UF Astronomy team’s state-of-the-art camera will soon begin snapping super-resolution images of Earth with unparalleled precision from the International Space Station.

The camera, called iSIM-170 (integrated Standard Imager for Microsatellites), departed on its maiden voyage as part of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) HTV-9 mission on Friday, May 22, after a successful launch from Tanegashima Space Center. The shuttle docked at the International Space Station three days later, and the camera is set to be positioned on June 10.

Led by UF Professor of Astronomy RAFAEL GUZMÁN, the iSIM project is a collaboration among researchers and engineers at UF and Satlantis, the company with offices in the United States and Spain for which Guzmán serves as co-founder and chief technology officer. UF Vice President of Research David Norton has also helped to shepherd the project into a reality.

While watching the rocket lift off with iSIM aboard, Guzmán said he was filled with “overwhelming emotion” as he reflected on nine years of work.

“I went back to the original moments, when I first presented the idea to Vice President Norton. He believed in us,” Guzmán said. “I thought back to the first designs on whiteboards, and the first tests that failed miserably at the Kennedy Space Center.”

For its power and resolution, the iSIM camera is exceptionally small — just about 33 pounds. Despite that, it can detect objects as small as 32 inches in size over an area of more than 4,500 square miles. It does so while traveling over 17,000 mile per hour nearly 250 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Every half hour, Guzmán said, the iSIM camera on-board the future constellations of microsatellites will have captured a new snapshot of specific targets around the entire planet.

“This ‘real-time’ approach is the holy grail of information from space,” Guzmán said.

The camera was originally designed to look out into space, capturing images of dark halos in galaxies around the Milky Way — that is, until a visit to Florida from Cristina Garmendia, then Spain’s Minister of Science and Innovation and now chairwoman of Satlantis.

Garmendia asked Guzmán whether he’d ever considered turning the camera back towards Earth. Accustomed to studying far-off phenomena across the universe, Guzmán said he was at first “flabbergasted” by the question — but quickly understood the potential scientific and commercial applications.

Those applications will include monitoring land and coasts for environmental changes, security for inspecting borders, and infrastructure for oil and gas, said BO ZHAO, a senior optical engineer in the Department of Astronomy who designed the iSIM camera and is the inventor of the patent.

“This project has demonstrated collaboration between nations, agencies and universities, with a diverse group of cultures, languages and people,” Zhao said. “I am glad to be part of this global project that brings people together for science.”

Guzmán praised UF and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for its support of technology transfer, innovation and collaboration. He also highlighted the Department of Astronomy’s top-tier instrumentation program and stable workforce of senior engineers.

“The University has been fully supportive of our research and development,” added SIDNEY SCHOFIELD, the instrument program coordinator in the Department of Astronomy who served as the system engineer for the camera mission. “It provides high quality researchers and students to contribute to the project’s success.”

Looking ahead, the team is preparing a second smaller camera (iSIM-90) to be launched to the International Space Station in November 2021 on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral.

Learn more about iSIM here.