By Yuri Stetner
Recently, the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) decided to upgrade the internal cameras onboard its International Space Station (ISS) to commercial standard 720p/1080i formats to deliver a crisper video signal to earth. The video signal would in turn be used to produce high-quality coverage of NASA missions and events, documentaries, archival video, and other unique programming for NASA TV. In order to effectively transmit the new high-definition signal, the agency needed high-performance signal processing equipment that would survive the harsh conditions of space. Keeping this in mind, NASA began a rigorous evaluation phase, including radiation tolerance testing, of several of the industry’s premier encoding solutions.
The key criteria in the selection process included two requirements: verifying that the encoder does not radiate RF emissions outside of the established limits and ensuring there were no sharp edges or rotating fan blades that could pose as a physical hazard. The initial tests were carried out at the Indiana University Cyclotron facility, a nationally recognized scientific research center. Here, NASA emulated the outer space radiation effect on electronic equipment by applying a gradual proton beam to the encoding systems. The proton beam was increased up to 250 rads, the equivalent radiation effectiveness of being in outer space for more than four years, in order to determine their viability in space.
After going through the strenuous radiation tests, Visionary Solution Inc. AVN443 encoders were the only encoding solutions that were certified by NASA for spaceflight. When increasing the proton beam’s dose slowly on the AVN443 encoders, NASA observed disturbances such as dropped frames, missing frames, blank screen, and frozen screen. After removing the proton beam, the encoder was tested to determine whether the system could self-recover, and in some instances, it did. If it was unable to self-recover, NASA disabled the streaming function and re-enabled it to perform a soft reset. The AVN443 survived radiation testing up to 250 rads, until it could no longer recover. After that point in the testing phase, NASA could still communicate with the encoder via a Web browser and perform functions such as opening and closing menus and tabs, changing information, and disabling the streaming operation. In addition, NASA observed that the AVN443 encoder still recognized the input video source. Throughout the entire testing phase, Visionary Solutions engineers provided support to NASA to ensure that the encoders would deliver a high-quality signal during the crucial mission.
In addition to being the only encoders to pass the radiation tolerance test, the AVN443 encoders were also selected based on their low power consumption of less than 5 watts, efficient heat dissipation, light weight, and excellent picture quality, all of which made them perfectly suited for deployment in space.
Through a combination of Visionary Solutions’ standards-based H.264 hardware compression and optimized transmission technology, the AVN443 encoders provide NASA with an HD, full-frame rate, IP video stream from within the ISS, as well as an external view of the ISS and a view of Earth. NASA has paired the AVN443 encoders with Sencore’s MRD 3187B modular receiver decoders. After the AVN443 encoders compress video signals from multiple high-definition video cameras onboard the ISS, the Sencore MRDs receive the IP video streams back on Earth and decode them into HD video feeds for NASA’s monitoring, recording, and rebroadcast use. Both products feature a modular architecture that offers NASA a space-saving and bandwidth-efficient solution designed to resolve the challenges of delivering multiple high-quality HD video services from an orbiting space station.
The AVN443 encoder’s flexible, modular architecture can easily adapt to different input resolutions, including 480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i, and 1080p60, offering NASA a cost-effective and scalable broadcast solution. Through a simple upgrade, NASA can upgrade its encoders easily to 1080p in the future, without having to send the encoders back to Earth.
The AVN443 encoders are housed within Visionary Solutions’ MPP200 media processing platforms, which each feature a single power source and are based on a high-density design with the capability to hold two single-slot encoder blades or one dual-slot AVN443 blade, providing NASA with an incredibly space-efficient solution for encoding digital video. The two-slot platform can stand alone or be rack mounted, offering NASA a high degree of flexibility in terms of where and how they’re installed on the ISS. The MPP200 also includes LED status indicator lights and DC power input so that NASA’s astronauts can easily monitor the AVN443 encoders to ensure a flawless IP video signal.
NASA will use the Visionary Solutions’ encoders for three projects: with HD cameras inside ISS for NASA’s public relations program through NASA TV, with cameras outside of ISS for testing, and to provide an HD camera view of Earth. In addition to being utilized on the ISS, a number of AVN443 encoders support NASA’s astronauts on Earth for training and troubleshooting purposes. The extra encoding systems on Earth will also enable NASA technicians to replicate the encoding technology being used on the ISS in the event that there is ever an issue with the video signal in space.
For those of us on Earth wanting to experience the thrills of a space station or admire the beauty of our dear blue planet, NASA provides the answer. Through the combination of Visionary Solutions’ AVN443 encoders and Sencore MRD 3187B decoders, NASA can deliver an extremely reliable, high-quality, real-time video signal from space, enabling viewers on Earth to experience superior quality images from space.
Yuri Stetner is the technical sales manager for Visionary Solutions Inc.