Revolutionary Camera Recording Propulsion Data Completes
Groundbreaking Test

thousands turned out to watch NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) recently
complete a full-scale test of its booster, few were aware of the other major
test occurring simultaneously. NASA’s High Dynamic Range Stereo X (HiDyRS-X)
project, a revolutionary high-speed, high dynamic range camera, filmed the
test, recording propulsion video data in never before seen detail.

The HiDyRS-X
project originated from a problem that exists when trying to film rocket motor
tests. Rocket motor plumes, in addition to being extremely loud, are also
extremely bright, making them difficult to record without drastically cutting
down the exposure settings on the camera. Doing so, however, darkens the rest
of the image, obscuring other important components on the motor.

video cameras record using one exposure at a time, but HiDyRS-X records
multiple, slow motion video exposures at once, combining them into a high
dynamic range video that perfectly exposes all areas of the video image.

The HiDyRS-X
project began as part of NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Early
Career Initiative (ECI), designed to give young engineers the opportunity to
lead projects and develop hardware alongside leading innovators in industry.
Howard Conyers, a structural dynamist at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, was
awarded as an ECI grant in 2015. After initial proof of concept and a
preliminary design review, the HiDyRS-X project was placed within NASA’s Game
Changing Development program to complete its first prototype. Created in partnership
with Innovative Imaging and Research Corporation, the project was tested on
small rocket nozzle plumes at Stennis.

The massive
booster test served as a rare opportunity to test the HiDyRS-X hardware in a
full-scale environment. The Qualification Motor 2, or QM-2, test was held at
Orbital ATK’s test facility in Promontory, Utah, and was the second and final
booster test before SLS’s first test flight in late 2018. SLS will be the most
powerful rocket in the world, and will take our astronauts farther into deep
space than ever before.

Image of Space Launch System Qualification Motor 2 test or, QM-2, without using HiDyRS-X camera.
Credits: NASAImage of Space Launch System Qualification Motor 2 test or, QM-2, with HiDyRS-X camera.
Credits: NASA

In moving
from the smaller-scale tests to QM-2, Conyers says the most difficult
challenges were seen in compensating for brightness of the booster plume, which
is several orders of magnitude brighter than what they had tested before. They
were also faced with transporting and assembling the equipment at the QM-2 test
site located in the desert of Utah — a remote environment requiring the
HiDyRS-X team to be self-sufficient, as well as deliberate and methodical in
their preparation and set up. Unlike the smaller scale rocket engine tests at
Stennis, boosters are extremely powerful and, once ignited, cannot be turned
off or restarted. The HiDyRS-X team had one shot at getting good footage.

In the days
prior to the test of QM-2, the HiDyRS-X team double- and triple-checked their
connections and start procedures to allow the camera to collect as much footage
as possible. Leading up to the day of the test, the team performed several more
dry runs using the camera to ensure that everything was working perfectly,
Conyers says.

thousands of people assembled over a mile away to watch the fiery plume of the
solid rocket booster, Conyers and his team monitored the camera from a safe
distance, ready to act in case something went wrong. As the countdown clock
ticked down to zero, the SRB ignited and the HiDyRS-X team watched the camera’s
automatic timer fail to go off. Luckily, they were quick to hit the manual
override, allowing the camera to turn on just moments after ignition.

engaged, the camera recorded several seconds of the two-minute test before the
power source was suddenly disconnected. In an unanticipated series of events,
the sheer power of the booster shook the ground enough for the power cable to
be removed from the power box.

had two unexpected camera outages during the test, Conyers described being

“I was
bummed,” Conyers says. “Especially because we did not experience any failures
during the dry runs.”

When the
team reviewed the camera footage, they saw a level of detail on par with the
other successful HiDyRS-X tests. The team saw several elements never before
caught on film in an engine test.

“I was
amazed to see the ground support mirror bracket tumbling and the vortices
shedding in the plume,” Conyers says. The team was able to gather interesting
data from the slow motion footage, and Conyers also discovered something else
by speeding up the playback.

“I was able
to clearly see the exhaust plume, nozzle and the nozzle fabric go through its
gimbaling patterns, which is an expected condition, but usually unobservable in
slow motion or normal playback rates.”

initially disappointed with the camera anomalies, Conyers and the HiDyRS-X team
came out of QM-2 with proof that their technology worked and that it had the
ability to provide unprecedented views of high exposure rocket motor tests. The
test experience also left Conyers with two major lessons learned for the
future. First, to start the camera a full ten seconds before ignition to allow
the ground team time to start the camera manually in the event of a timer
failure. The second lesson, Conyers adds, is to understand just how powerful
the engine tests are to properly protect and secure the electronics hardware
from damage or disconnection.

during testing of the camera is the opportunity to get smarter,” Conyers says.
“Without failure, technology and innovation is not possible.”

will continue testing at Stennis, while a second prototype of the camera is
built with more advanced high dynamic range capabilities, using data gathered
from the past few years of experimentation. The second HiDyRS-X prototype will
be made with an improved manufacturing process to enhance the alignment
capabilities of multiple exposure settings — a challenge overcome in the first

HiDyRS-X not
only stands as a game changing technology expected to revolutionize propulsion
video analysis, but it also stands as a testament to ECI and the power of
determined young engineers within NASA. Seasoned NASA employees and recent
hires alike have the capacity to significantly contribute to NASA’s research
and development goals. ECI’s emphasis on pairing young engineers with
innovative industry partners enables technological leaps that would otherwise
be impossible.

“The Stennis HiDyRS-X ECI project continues to be
an exciting and challenging public-private collaboration of which we are proud
to be a part,” says Mary Pagnutti, president of the Innovative Imaging and
Research Corporation. “It’s giving us the chance to mentor early career
technologists and advance the way we image and assess rocket motor firings.”