Dr Richard Salisbury – “Infrared cameras and the LCROSS mission”

Thursday 4 February 2010

We don’t often get detailed background information on instruments that are carried in spacecraft, but this was put right in a fascinating talk by Richard Salisbury the CEO of Thermoteknix in Waterbeach. His company produces sophisticated infrared cameras that have attracted the attention of the space community in the USA. Richard explained how the cameras were built to withstand very high (for example in cement kilns) and very low temperatures, as well as vibrations and strong G forces. The latter were apparent in applications of their technology to Formula 1 and Indy racing cars. It was through Indy car racing that the camera’s potential for use in space was brought to the attention of the space physics department at Johns Hopkins University. After successful application to imaging exhaust debris in their rocket testing programme, the camera was fully certified for use in space. As a result, the near infrared imaging camera was chosen to be part of a suite of instruments on the LCROSS mission to crash a spent rocket into the Moon and image the resulting plume of debris. LCROSS (Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite) was designed to confirm observations by other spacecraft that hint at the presence of water on the Moon. The craft consisted of a rocket stage that had spent its fuel which crashed into a crater on a side of the moon in permanent shadow. A companion craft with imaging cameras for different wavelengths followed closely behind to record the impact and take spectroscopic measurements of the resulting debris before itself crashing into the Moon. Although the plume of debris was much smaller than expected (to the disappointment of many earth bound observers) the Thermoteknix camera recorded a clear flash of released heat from the lunar surface at the point of impact. Spectroscopic observations indicated that water was indeed present, along with a significant amount of sodium which is, as yet, unexplained.

There were a couple of messages from this talk: one was that scientific progress is often made when different fields come together in unexpected ways (cement kilns, racing cars and space!) The other is that costs of space missions can be kept relatively low by using commercially available instruments that have been extensively tested under extreme conditions, rather than developing new instruments from scratch.

This isn’t the last adventure of Thermoteknix in space as a camera will be visiting Saturn’s moon Titan in a few years time. We hope to be around long enough to hear what Richard Salisbury has to say in another visit!

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