The new camera system, including an α7S II, was installed in the Exposed Facility (EF) on the International Space Station (ISS)'s Japanese Experiment Module, KIBO.
The H-II Transfer Vehicle, KOUNOTORI, a Japanese cargo transfer spacecraft serving the International Space Station, was launched from Japan's largest rocket-launch complex, the Tanegashima Space Center, on 9 December 2016, carrying one of Sony's revolutionary α7S II cameras on board. This gives us on the ground the opportunity to see images captured from space in 4K or full HD video resolution, as well as 12-megapixel still pictures.
The International Space Station orbits approx. 400 kilometres (249 miles) above the Earth at a speed of roughly 8 km/s (5 miles/s), and completes one orbit of the Earth in approx. 90 minutes (16 orbits/day) — faster than a bullet.
Why was the α7S II chosen as the camera to be used in the incredible environment of space, and what kind of subjects are they hoping to shoot with the α7S II? We talked to Toshitami Ikeda, JAXA's associate senior engineer, in charge of the outboard camera system.
(Interviewed 13 Dec 2016)
The α7S II in Space
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Japan by day
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Japan by night
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The US by night
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Unusual natural phenomena and the changing appearance of the Earth.
- To begin with, could you tell us about the mission, role and purpose of the outboard camera?
The mission of the outboard camera is to record clear images of the Earth from the International Space Station. By capturing exceptional, immersive images from outer space of something such as a large-scale disaster on the ground, you can grasp aspects of the situation that are unseen from the ground, such as damage and the scope of impact. We can also explore environmental changes by taking continuous pictures of a specific place, like a fixed-point observation. This could be looking at colour change in the sea by taking pictures of a submarine volcano or watching the movement of drift ice. By recognising these kinds of changes of the Earth, we can contribute to an understanding of global environmental issues, and we also believe that transmitting images invisible from the ground will lead to an increased interest in space development.
- α7S II can shoot both movie and still images. How will you divide these applications?
I think dynamic scenes of cargo transfer vehicles such as KOUNOTORI approaching or departing the International Space Station, or of the Japanese archipelago from the International Space Station traversing from South to North, can be conveyed very realistically with moving images. On the other hand, still images offer a better colour tone reproduction, and this can be used when analysing more subtle changes, such as in the colours of oceans and forests.
Ability to capture the Earth at night and outer space brightly
- Please tell us why the α7S II was chosen as the outboard camera.
The camera system outside the station is controlled from the Earth via remote control and transmits image data. This made the α7S II, which already has a built-in USB interface and can handle command operations, an excellent choice both as an outboard camera and in terms of easy handling technically. In addition, phenomena such as Aurora or meteors, or the Earth seen at night from space, are a little different from when seen on the ground, so the high-sensitivity capture that the α7S II offers is perfect for night shooting. The International Space Station makes one orbit of the Earth every 90 minutes, and using our previous system, we couldn't even consider shooting at night, which comes around every 45 minutes. I'm looking forward to its performance and the ability to shoot even in very low light at night.
- I think expectations for 4K video shot in space are also high.
Of course, being able to record 4K movies is also an important point. This will be the first implementation of 4K shooting using a commercial-level camera installed on the outside of the International Space Station, and I'm very much looking forward to capturing more vivid footage than ever before. We actually planned to use the α7S originally. Then in 2016, it was decided that this would be replaced by the second-generation model, the α7S II, which offered internal 4K movie recording support. There was very little time to install it, and re-testing was very difficult. It was great because as the α7S and α7S II commands are compatible, and they also use the same sensors, it meant we could carry some elements forward. However, some parts and software differed slightly — for example, the sequence when turning on the power supply is subtly different, so it was necessary to do some tuning around this.
As Sony engineers provided us with information about things such as partial changes in the firmware, and differences between the α7S and α7S II, we were able to carry out the necessary evaluations and adjustments and bring this to KIBO.
We're very excited about the possibilities shooting in 4K that the outboard camera offers.
- Apart from 4K video, are there other differences from the previous outboard camera?
Previously, the outboard camera attached to the Exposed Facility of KIBO was set up so that it was always facing the Earth, but we now have a mounting that lets us move in 2 axes, which means that even when directed towards the Earth, we can still move and capture space. This ability to photograph the Earth and space from different angles will allow the capture of images that have been impossible until now.
[External view of the KIBO Japanese Experiment Module and camera mount location]
The camera mount is positioned at the tip of the KIBO Japanese Experiment Module. From here, it's possible to capture both the Earth and space. The KIBO module features an airlock and robot arm that allow for experiments and observational equipment to be put in place or switched as needed without the need for extravehicular activity by astronauts.
Japanese Experiment Module (JEM)
1. Pressurised module 2. Experiment logistics module - pressurised section 3. JEM airlock 4. JEM remote manipulator system 5. Exposed facility 6. α7S II mount location
- How did the α7S II actually get to the International Space Station?
As space is a vacuum, heat is not dissipated by air convection. To overcome this, the camera with its lens is placed in aluminium housing, the Camera Unit, and maximising the contact with this aluminium housing helps that heat escape. The Camera Unit was protected by cushioning materials and carried as part of the pressurised cargo delivered by Japan's KOUNOTORI.
- What kinds of tests were necessary in order to be able to use the camera on the International Space Station?
First, we started with tests to make sure the camera didn't malfunction or break due to cosmic radiation, and we also tested whether it could function in the vacuum and extreme thermal environment of space. We had to make sure it could withstand the vibrations on lift-off and operate without causing any electromagnetic interference.
On top of this, we tested whether the camera itself could tolerate the electrical or electromagnetic noise produced by the other equipment on the ISS, and we also had to make sure it could be controlled smoothly from the ground, and that we could extract our images. Before the camera was fitted to the exposed facility, it was taken into the experiment module where astronauts live and work wearing ordinary clothing, so all kinds of tests had to be done to ensure that nothing would affect them, such as harmful gasses being given off.
Reliable technology that offers outstanding environmental resilience
- Are there any special equipment arrangements that make it easier for the camera to operate within the unique circumstances of space?
In that environment, if you point the camera towards the sun, the sunlight gradually causes temperatures to become very high. Conversely, directing it away from the sun causes temperatures to fall extremely low. The temperature difference can be over 200 degrees C (390 degrees F), so we use a radiator to deal with the heat and a heater for the cold in order to stay within an operable range.
The camera's hardware itself is almost untouched. We performed a lot of tests, but we had hardly any issues. It's a testament to the α7S II's reliability and resilience that we could use the camera as it was in this environment.
- Please tell us how the α7S II was tuned for use in outer space.
Since it's operated remotely from the ground, we've altered a part of the firmware so that we can change shot settings via operation commands. Almost all adjustments for exposure and other settings can be controlled remotely. We're now using the SELP28135G powered zoom lens, and the amount of zoom can be controlled from the ground. Also, as we now have the 4K video capability, we can record a video file and transmit it to the ground as an additional function of the whole system. In addition, we have an external power supply as it would be difficult to change the battery given its location, and power can be switched on and off from the ground.
Associate Senior Engineer
Mission Operations and Integration Center,
Human Spaceflight Technology Directorate
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
Completed graduate school, joined NASDA (National Space Development Agency of Japan, currently JAXA). Involved in development and promotional work on the Japanese Experiment Module, KIBO. Held current position since 2015.
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