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Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield described Space as "a surreal place to work, with no familiar landmarks or objects to give perspective and depth." Yet for years, humans have been launching satellites, performing Space walks and building Space stations despite the challenges of working in Space.
Astronauts are able to do all this thanks in part to the Space Vision System – a tool developed by the National Research Council to help astronauts guide the Canadarm.
At first, astronauts operated the Canadarm using camera images and eyesight. Precisely maneuvering the arm by watching a 9-inch screen or peering through a tiny window into a cargo bay 30 feet away was no easy task! NRC realized astronauts needed a better system to control the Canadarm, especially during complex tasks.
The technology that became the Space Vision System evolved from tracking vehicles during NRC crash tests: High speed cameras would record a car as it crashed into a test barrier. Both the car and the fixed background behind it were set up with black and white targets on them. The vehicle's movement was tracked by a computer program that compared the two sets of targets to calculate factors like speed and direction.
NRC scientists decided to try using the same method to help control the Canadarm. By 1978 they had adapted the technique to work with the television system on the Space Shuttle and called it the Space Vision System (SVS). Marc Garneau tested the new device on the 1984 Challenger mission by recording the launch and movement of a satellite with SVS targets on it.
The system proved successful, with only a few small problems during the first test when a target was briefly blocked by the Canadarm and the view was briefly obscured by reflection from the Sun.
After the first successful test, work began on a complete SVS that could be installed on the Space Shuttle. It would be tested by Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean on a later flight. In the 1980s, NRC astronauts worked on the flight-ready model of the system – designing experiments, writing an operator's manual, developing computer and video simulators and creating a computer database that would show the Canadarm operator data from the SVS.
They also had to create the Canadian Target Assembly – the practice equipment that MacLean would manipulate with the Canadarm during the new SVS's first experiment. Engineers worked to develop a target dot system for Space like the ones used to track crash tests. Contrasting targets were designed with white dots on black backgrounds and vice versa.
NRC's thin film group (the same group that had developed anti-counterfeiting technology for Canadian money) created the "ultra-black target element for SVS" with dots that were easier to track, less affected by light and resistant to deterioration. The new black dots were put on all satellites and other hardware the Canadarm would be moving, including the parts of the International Space Station.
The new SVS was ready to fly in 1986, but the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster caused what turned out to be a six-year delay in shuttle flights. Canadian astronauts used this time to improve the SVS software based on the results of simulation tests in a mockup of the Space shuttle's cargo bay facility.
The resulting Advanced Space Vision System (ASVS) was even better than the original. MacLean finally tested it in 1992 aboard Space Shuttle Columbia. In 1995, it was used to attach the Orbiter Docking Station to the shuttle and dock with the Mir Space Station. Since 1999, the ASVS has been critical in constructing the Canadarm II and the Mobile Servicing Station on the International Space Station.
The new 3D Advanced Space Vision System was successfully tested in 1999. Instead of recording video, like previous models, it recorded digitally, allowing for better resolution and faster image processing. A laser scanner was added to the system in 2001 that could be used for creating virtual simulations and scanning shuttles for damage.
While the ASVS was operating so successfully, work began to improve the Space Vision System with 3D-scanning. NRC had been developing this technology for the inspection of auto parts in the manufacturing sector. It promised to overcome the problems of the earlier Space Vision systems by allowing astronauts to work without worrying about the reflection of the Sun, difficult light conditions or a time delay in images. The new high-performance system could also be used to scan the shuttle for damage while in Space.
After the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost in 2003, this safety scanning system became a major priority to prevent the loss of future shuttles and crew. The detailed scanning technology can detect faults in the shuttle's protective tiles down to a millimetre.
NRC's Space Vision System has come a long way since it was first developed. Since 2001, it has been used to help build the International Space Station. Work is also underway on a new orbiter using the SVS that will breathe new life into Space probes like the Hubble Telescope by replacing their batteries.
The technology used in SVS has many Earth-bound applications as well. It is used in the automobile industry by assembly robots and for testing sheet metal for imperfections. The military uses it for 3D target scanning and recognition. Law enforcement officers use it to gather hard-to-get evidence like shoe and finger prints. It is even used to preserve historical treasures by creating 3D scans of artifacts and buildings, creating virtual reality versions of famous paintings at the Louvre and medieval monasteries in Italy.