May 8, 2005 Can you see the difference between traditional corn and bio-engineered corn -- where genes have been inserted to make the plant resistant to insects? NASA technology is beginning to provide the answer in a snapshot.
The technology, called hyperspectral imaging, uses a special camera to cut one snapshot into 120 color-specific images. Hyperspectral means that you are getting many more images within the spectrum of just one picture. Each image shows a unique characteristic, not visible to the human eye.
The patented, portable hyperspectral sensor was inducted into the Space Foundation's Space Technology Hall of Fame this month. The Space Foundation has become one of the world's premier non-profit organizations supporting space activities, space professionals and education. The Hall of Fame honors the innovators who have transformed technology originally developed for space use into commercial products.
The hyperspectral camera and its applications were developed by the Institute for Technology Development at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The Institute is one of several NASA Research Partnership Centers managed for NASA Headquarters by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
The Environmental Protection Agency has teamed with NASA to use the hyperspectral imaging technology to ensure that appropriate management practices are used to avoid the development of resistance in corn pest populations. Pest resistance could severely limit the continued use of these new varieties of corn. With 25+ million acres of corn planted this year, it is physically and economically infeasible to sample each corn acre. This new technology seeks to provide a proactive monitoring capability to inform the grower of pest resistance development. Early use of hyperspectral imaging provides the ability to efficiently distinguish between the two types of corn by their unique characteristics and identify pest infestation conditions.
"This effort will enhance NASA's understanding of image processing techniques to extract knowledge from hyperspectral data sets," said Brian Mitchell of NASA's Space Partnership Development Program at the Marshall Center. "The research being conducted with genetically modified plants and plant growth has the potential to contribute significantly in our ability to grow sustainable and nutritional crops in space for our astronaut crews. This could prove vital for long duration exploration missions."
The hyperspectral technology supports NASA's Vision for Space Exploration and long-term spaceflight goals. The Vision calls for Space Shuttles to return to safe flight to complete the International Space Station, and human and robotic exploration of the Solar System.
"This knowledge is vital to future Mars missions," said George May, director of the Institute for Technology Development. "When we go to Mars, we will have to grow our own food source. This technology enables early detection of stresses in plants, such as nutrient problems, so that corrective action can be taken to maintain the food supply."
Hyperspectral imaging also can be used in treating astronaut wounds in space. The Institute for Technology Development is working on a portable, handheld camera that an astronaut could use to capture an image of a wound site. Using that image to identify wound severity or progress in healing would allow doctors to decide the best treatment for the wound. This imaging could save precious time in diagnosing a problem and reduce healing time by applying the appropriate treatment.
Hyperspectral imaging will be able to detect mold and toxins in spacecraft -- a needed tool in long-duration missions to ensure the astronauts have a clean, healthy environment.
A healthy environment is also what the EPA is looking for when monitoring corn crops. The agency is working with a hyperspectral camera -- about the size of a loaf of bread -- mounted onboard a small aircraft. The aircraft typically flies about 8,000 feet above the terrain, imaging the same sites every 10 days during growing season. All of the images are then put into a computer system, where data-mining techniques are used to extract knowledge about the corn plants.
"A major concern is to ensure the optimal productive life for the biotech crop due to the expected environmental benefits" says John A. Glaser of the EPA Office of Research & Development's National Risk Management Research Laboratory in Cincinnati.
"The spectral imagery of corn hybrids collected during the 2004 growing season begins to show that imagery can be developed into a component of biotech crop monitoring," adds Glaser. "We are pleased to see that the ability to accurately distinguish transgenic from non-transgenic hybrids begins to answer the needs of our decision support system. The clarity of infestation effects in the imagery strongly underscores the potential utility of imagery for crop monitoring."
The hyperspectral imaging system is trademarked and patented under U.S. Patent No. 6,166,373 issued Dec. 26, 2000, and is only available from the Institute for Technology Development, or under license.
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