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The Cryogenic Focus Mechanism – Building NASA a Camera For Space’s Coldest Environments

The environments beyond Earth’s atmosphere are extreme, with temperature fluctuations that can expose hardware to cold unseen in Earth-based operations. Designing hardware that is capable of withstanding this extreme cold while providing scientists on Earth with the data they are looking for is key to furthering mankind’s exploration of space.

Images sent back to Earth from other planets capture the public’s attention and imagination. While cameras in space are nothing new, optimizing their operation in the cold environments they are sent to continues to evolve.

In 2019, Motiv Space Systems was awarded a Phase I contract by NASA to pursue the engineering of a cryogenic focus mechanism (CFM). This mechanism will be applied to planetary cameras as they operate in temperatures well below any on Earth.

Cryogenic focus mechanism layout

Cryogenic focus mechanism layout.

Existing cameras onboard rovers and landers sent throughout the solar system utilize a fixed-focus because the mechanical systems that adjust focus do not operate well in extreme cold. Being able to change the focus of a camera or spectrometer would enable scientists on Earth to better evaluate the characteristics of what they are looking at.

Motiv’s CFM is being designed to fit within existing volume constraints and will not rely on external heating systems — which add size, weight, and power requirements — to keep the mechanism at an operable temperature. Rather, the mechanism will take advantage of advances in engineering that enable movement at temperatures as low as -180℃.

Cryogenic focus mechanism evolution

CFM evolution.

Following the success of the Phase I contract, Motiv was awarded a Phase II contract in 2020 to build a prototype of the CFM. In addition to its applications to planetary missions, such a focus mechanism will be ideally suited for use on Earth-monitoring spacecraft and other platforms that would benefit from the ability to focus an imaging system without the need for bulky external heaters.

Motiv is using its previous engineering success with the Mars 2020 Mastcam-Z and work related to the Cold Operable Lunar Deployable Arm (COLDArm) in the development of the CFM. By continuing to refine the engineering technology for operating mechanisms in the extreme cold of space, Motiv is ensuring that the future of robotic space exploration will be less costly and more capable.

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