Rocket launch ignites brush fire, burns NASA camera

The photos survived

Above: NASA Photographer Bill Ingalls’s camera after it was caught in brushfire caused by the launch of the NASA/German GRACE-FO from Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 22, 2018. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

A camera set up by a NASA photographer, theoretically in a safe zone, to film a rocket launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was consumed in a brush fire caused by the launch May 22. Firefighters on the base were able to contain the fire fairly quickly, but could not save the camera. However the memory card and the photos survived.

Below is an excerpt from an account by NASA of what happened:

“NASA photographer Bill Ingalls has been shooting for the agency for 30 years. His creativity and efforts to get unique images are well known within the agency and to those who follow it. He knows where to set up his cameras, so what explains the view from the camera, as seen in the GIF [below]?

” “I had six remotes, two outside the launch pad safety perimeter and four inside,” said Ingalls. “Unfortunately, the launch started a grass fire that toasted one of the cameras outside the perimeter.”

“The location and vegetation can be seen in the set-up picture at right. Once the fire reached the camera, it was quickly engulfed. The body started to melt. When Ingalls returned to the site, firefighters were waiting to greet him. Recognizing the camera was destroyed, Ingalls forced open the body to see if its memory card could be salvaged. It could, which is how we can see the fire approaching the camera.

“Ironically, the four cameras set up inside the perimeter were undamaged, as was the other remote. The damaged camera was one of the furthest from the pad, a quarter of a mile away.

“The “toasty” camera, as Ingalls calls it, is likely headed for display somewhere at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. Meanwhile, Ingalls himself will soon travel to Kazakhstan to photograph the June 3 landing of the International Space Station’s Expedition 55 crew. He expects that will be a completely normal assignment.”

Using the EXIF data on Mr. Ingalls photos we were able to determine the location of the camera. With Google Earth we found the probable site of the launch pad and created this 3-D map that shows the topography in the area. The camera was at the top of a moderately steep brushy slope that, depending on the weather and the amount of fuel available, may have resulted in a fairly hot fire as it reached the camera. The satellite image was acquired in July, 2016

map launch site camera destroyed
Map showing the position of the NASA camera in relation to the launch site. Click to enlarge. Wildfire Today / Google Earth.
rocket launch brush fire melts NASA camera
The NASA camera before the rocket launch. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
rocket launch brush fire melts NASA camera
One of the last shots taken by the NASA camera. The plastic has started to melt and droop over the lens. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Below is an animated GIF that shows the launch, the fire approaching, and the camera starting to melt. It appears that first, the plastic glare shield that extends in front of the lens softened and drooped over the lens. From the post-fire picture above it looks like the plastic that forms the exterior of the lens assembly melted, and the lens itself may have succumbed as well. Continue reading “Rocket launch ignites brush fire, burns NASA camera”

NASA’s report on developing an improved fire shelter is like the last episode of The Sopranos

In this video that NASA published today the agency explains their role in working with the U.S. Forest Service in developing a fire shelter that would hopefully increase the survival chances of a wildland firefighter entrapped in a vegetation fire. NASA is looking at materials they have used or plan to use on spacecraft that could reflect heat, provide some insulation from the outside temperatures which can exceed 2,000 degrees F, is thin and flexible enough to be folded and easily carried, is durable enough to be carried by tactical athletes for years, and weighs less than five pounds. That’s tough criteria.

They have been working on this for about a year, which we have covered here and here. When I saw that they had just published this video, I assumed they would report on their progress, saying perhaps that they had selected a new very promising space age material and would be make a bunch of prototypes for rigorous testing. But no. In the five-minute video they simply say they are looking at materials.

Maybe I’m naive, thinking that when the vast resources of NASA are used to design a fairly straightforward product with no circuit boards or interplanetary radios, after a year their scientists could report at least SOME progress.

The video simply stops after five minutes and 18 seconds. There is no conclusion, no timetable is laid out, and there is no cause for celebration or hope. The video just ends. Like the final episode of The Sopranos.

The Sopranos
The last scene in “The Sopranos” series finale.

NASA to launch 200 satellites that will detect wildfires

CubeSat. NASA photo.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to launch a network of 200 small satellites that will detect wildfires within 15 minutes after a blaze grows to be at least 35 to 50 feet across. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is working on a concept for a network of space-based sensors called FireSat in collaboration with Quadra Pi R2E. Within three minutes of detecting a fire from orbit, FireSat would notify emergency responders in the area of the fire.

Robert Staehle, lead designer of FireSat at JPL, and his team first presented the concept of FireSat in 2011 to the joint NASA/U.S. Forest Service Tactical Fire Remote Sensing Advisory Committee. They spent the subsequent years refining their understanding of fire monitoring needs and technological requirements.

“Such a system has only now become feasible at a reasonable cost, enabled by advances in commercial microelectronics that NASA, JPL and universities have tested in space via CubeSat experiments, and by software technology originally developed to give Mars rovers and Earth orbiters more autonomy in their science observations,” Staehle said.

This sounds like science fiction, but launches should begin in 2017 with a fully operational system of FireSat sensors in space by June of 2018.

CubeSats are 4 inches by 4 inches by 4 inches and weigh about 3 pounds. They are generally built from off the shelf components at a cost of thousands rather than millions of dollars.