National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Glenn Research Center

Nathan Howard


July 12, 2007

JSC civil servant Nathan Howard presented his work on a relatively new piece of technology called the MiniAERCam. The MiniAERCam is a small free flying camera that circles spacecraft, acting as another “eye.” It is a significant contribution to the space program because it can survey the craft or pieces of equipment in space quickly and safely, unlike manned Extravehicular Activities (EVAs). It also aids astronauts during EVAs.

This free flying camera has had a ten year development. The project began in 1995 and was called Sprint. Sprint was technologically limited and was used as an EVA robotic camera with manual six degrees of freedom control and video. It was fourteen inches in diameter and weighed thirty-five pounds.

The next free flyer was sent to space as a technology demonstration. It had many more technological updates and was autonomous (it found its way to a manually specified point).

The official MiniAERCam flyer was developed next. There were many updates, including rechargeable batteries and propulsion, digital video, commanded attitude control (points a certain direction for as long as it can), wireless Ethernet, and 1 mega pixel pictures. The propulsion system used xenon and the power system used Lithium Ion batteries. It has been used for both the International Space Station and the orbiter.

After the Columbia accident, the free flyer was used extensively as an inspection probe. It is stored in a small hangar within the payload bay, and was controlled by a laptop in the crew cabin. Within two and a half hours it can check the orbiter’s wings and nose can and still have power and propulsion left.

This great piece of technology will never become obsolete; it can always be updated to meet the needs of spacecraft or space station. The newest prototype has not been flown due to a lack of customers.

—Kyle Gaiser