Harris Corp. eyes commercial applications for miniature hyperspectral sensor

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This article originally appeared in the Nov. 6, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Harris Corp. plans to conduct a flight test within a year of a commercial hyperspectral sensor the company is developing by shrinking the type of technology it used to build the Cross-track Infrared Sounder (CrIS) for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Joint Polar Satellite System.

CrIS measures temperature and moisture in Earth’s atmosphere with 2,111 spectral channels, providing data that plays an important role in the National Weather Service’s two-to-seven-day weather forecasts.

“We are spending research and development dollars to make smaller hyperspectral instruments focused on different missions,” said Eric Webster, vice president and general manager of Harris Environmental Solutions in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “We hope to fly something on a balloon or in space within the next six to 12 months.”

Harris is developing the new sensors for niche markets like agriculture and energy.

“We are in discussions with some very large agriculture companies that want to understand the health of their fields,” Webster said. “Using hyperspectral measurements, we will be able to discern crop health.”

Harris executives also are meeting with potential customers in the oil and gas industry, who want to pinpoint methane leaks, as well as customers interested in global measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide, Webster said.

“We’ve been working pretty hard over the last two years to come up with various versions of that CrIS-type instrument for specialized applications,” Webster said.

In addition to CrIS, Harris built the Advanced Baseline Imager, which captures views of Earth in 16 spectral bands, for NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-16 and similar instruments for the Japanese Meteorological Agency’s Himawari satellites and the Korea Aerospace Research Institute’s Geostationary Korea Multipurpose Satellite-2A.

Harris is prototyping hyperspectral sensors for commercial customers that could fit on small satellites or even cubesats, an innovation that is now possible for the first time because electronic components and focal plane arrays fit into smaller packages and need less power than previous generations of the technology, said Ron Glumb, CrIS chief engineer at Harris Environmental Solutions.

“We’ve been able to make the sensors much smaller, while keeping the high data quality that is comparable to our bigger systems,” Glumb said.

To date, startups have succeeded in gathering imagery from miniature electro-optical sensors flying on cubesats and small satellites, but companies seeking to develop commercial hyperspectral sensors have often faltered because the technology required to measure light in hundreds or thousands of bandwidths is far more complex and the ventures require extensive funding to clear the engineering hurdles.

“NASA, NOAA and the science community want accuracy, repeatability and reliability,” Webster said. “We are focused on making sure the new detectors are highly capable.