Jennifer Inman helps spacecraft enter the atmospheres of other worlds. She and the Scientifically Calibrated In-FLight Imagery (SCIFLI) team use a bunch of instruments on board a plane while it’s flying, follow a space vehicle’s reentry that’s traveling thousands of miles an hour (think Mach 25) from space back to Earth and find it through a field of view as small as a straw. Then, the SCIFLY team has to observe and keep the spacecraft in the middle of the field of view to gather the data necessary to study.
Together on the podcast, Beth and Jennifer talk heat shields, re-entry, Orion, Artemis, Hollywood film makers, and heat imaging and the surprising fact that parachutes on reentry vehicles can be quite challenging, and where she’ll be watching the historic spaceflight mission scheduled for May 27, 2020!
About NASA’s Forward to the Moon 20204 Mission: “As we talk about going back to the moon, it occurs to me WE haven’t been to the Moon… our generation has not been to the Moon..it’s important for US to figure out how we’re going to go to the Moon.” -Jennifer Inman on the Casual Space Podcast
Did you always know you would work for NASA one day? “When I was 6 years old, I knew I wanted to be an astronaut, a Mom, a teacher, and a waitress on roller skates. If it can’t be MY boots on the Moon, I’m going to daydream and work towards getting others there.”
About studying space and science in school: “I took physics on a whim and fell in love with it. It was all the beauty of calculus with answers that had connections to the real world. Once I got to quantum mechanics and relativity, I was hooked! I just loved the way I could look at the universe around me and have my understanding expanded, and just be in awe of the understanding of the universe we find ourselves in.”
Where to find Jennifer and her work at NASA:
You’ve GOT to learn about SCIFLI:
The SCIFLI team is based at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA.
In 2007 the HYTHIRM team was formed at the NASA Langley Research Center through the support of the NASA Engineering and Safety Center in order to determine the feasibility of obtaining high quality thermal imagery data of the Space Shuttle during hypersonic atmospheric reentry flight. The outcome of that study convinced the Space Shuttle Program Office to fund the HYTHIRM team to attempt to accomplish the goal of acquiring a single thermal image of the Space Shuttle during reentry. After returning with hundreds of thousands of frames of imagery acquired over an eight minute period of reentry, and after processing that thermal imagery to show that high quality measurements were not only possible but could provide unique and unexpected results, the HYTHIRM team conducted imaging operations on six more Shuttle reentries, the SpaceX C1 Dragon capsule reentry, and more. Every mission has been successful in meeting or exceeding the acquisition and processing of the desired data.
SCIFLI for Scientifically Calibrated In-Flight Imagery. The goal is to pursue the development and deployment of state of the art remote thermal, visual and spectral imaging capabilities from land, sea and airborne platforms over a multi-band spectrum.
How the Perfect Picture Advances Spaceflight
The researchers working on the Scientifically Calibrated In-FLight Imagery (SCIFLI) team acquire engineering quality data images of spacecraft launches, reentries, flight tests, and parachute tests from aircraft- and ground-based imaging systems. The SCIFLI team comprises members from multiple NASA centers, industry, academia, Department of Defense, and international and commercial partners, and together they support human spaceflight, improve aerodynamic models, and ultimately reduce mission risk.
“Our job is to get engineering data using telescopes on the ground or in the air,” said Dr. Jennifer Inman, SCIFLI project manager. “The imagery acquired during a test, launch, or re-entry yields flight-truth data.”
The team’s core capability is quantitative thermal and hyperspectral imaging using state-of-the-art imaging systems with high spatial, spectral, and/or temporal resolution.
“We close the gap between ground testing in wind tunnels, computational fluid dynamics, and flight truth,” Inman said. “Even with the best ground testing, we can’t match every parameter of flight. A flight test allows us to interpret our ground testing data and improve our computational models.”
The team has been continuously improving their techniques since starting work in 2007 and has made more than 28 observations in 2019 alone, including parachute drop tests, spacecraft reentries, and rocket launches.
“Not just anyone with a high-resolution camera can do this work. We’re sometimes trying to acquire a target at horizon break, when the vehicle is hundreds of kilometers away; you have to get it right the first time because there are no do-overs,” Inman said.
Part of mission planning involves determining the best possible optics and lenses specific to the mission; in addition, radiance modelling is sometimes required to predict optimal sensor settings. To help sensor operators make these kinds of informed decisions, researcher Richard Schwartz created a virtual environment tool that takes into account parameters like focal length, relative angles between imaging target and imaging platform, exposure time, and aperture setting, to enable pre-configuration of the sensors which provides the sensor operators with a baseline plan for acquisition and tracking. He then incorporates mission-specific information like aircraft and/or test vehicle geometry, velocity, latitude, longitude, and altitude to generate synthetic imagery to allow the team to get the data every time.
The needs of the customer dictate the type of datasets the researchers pursue. The team has imaged seven Space Shuttle reentries, the return of JAXA’s HAYABUSA spacecraft, the launch of several SpaceX rockets, the return of SpaceX Demonstration Mission 1, the return of three Commercial Resupply Services capsules, and dozens of tests of SpaceX Crew Dragon parachute systems required for crewed operation certification.
Over the last two years, the team has been conducting observations for Orion and both of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program partners — SpaceX and Boeing. Many of these tests have occurred in the Mojave and Great Basin deserts, and have involved testing to qualify parachutes for returning crewed vehicles to Earth. During these tests, darts, weigh sleds, Parachute Test Vehicles (PTV, a lower fidelity version of the Crew Dragon capsule), or boilerplate capsule models, are dropped from helicopters, balloons, or out the back of a cargo aircraft. The SCIFLI team is charged with capturing imagery that reveals intricate details of how the parachutes behave.
“Parachute performance is incredibly reliable under the loads and speeds involved in something like skydiving, but spaceflight occurs at higher speed and is much more challenging. The dynamic pressures are higher, so you need parachutes that can withstand higher impulse forces, and the air is thinner, which makes parachute inflation a less predictable process,” Inman said. “In addition, this higher performance requires parachute systems that are far more complex, with multiple parachutes deploying in several stages.”
The SCIFLI team is slated to do more work in 2020 with the Commercial Crew Program as it prepares to once again launch astronauts from US soil, with JAXA on the return of Hayabusa II from asteroid Ryugu, and with the Space Launch System and Orion Programs in preparation for Artemis and NASA’s return to the Moon in 2024 and journey to Mars.
NASA Langley Research Center