Rice’s NASA-funded TuLIPSS project sets high standard for portable spectrometers
Standard snapshots from space don’t quite show Earth in all its glory. There’s so much more to see.
To reveal details impossible to observe with the naked eye, Rice University engineers are building a portable spectrometer that can be mounted on a small satellite, flown on an airplane or a drone or someday even held in the hand.
Continuous capture images of moving traffic in the Houston neighborhood around Rice University shows how the TuLIPSS spectrometer filters motion blur in dynamic situations. The full-color video is a composite of the filtered spectral data captured by the device. The portable spectrometer has proven its ability to capture far more data much quicker than other fiber-based systems. Courtesy of the Modern Optical Instrumentation and Bio-Imaging Laboratory
Bioengineer Tomasz Tkaczyk and his colleagues at Rice’s Brown School of Engineering and Wiess School of Natural Sciences have published the first results from a NASA-funded project to develop a small, sophisticated spectrometer with unusual versatility. Their paper appears in Optics Express.
A spectrometer is an instrument that gathers light from an object or a scene, separates the colors and quantifies them to determine the chemical contents or other characteristics of what it sees.
The Rice device, called the Tunable Light-Guide Image Processing Snapshot Spectrometer (TuLIPSS), will let researchers instantly capture data across the visible and near-infrared spectrum, unlike current systems that scan a scene line-by-line and for later reassembly.
Each pixel in the hyperspectral images produced by TuLIPSS contains either spectral or spatial information. The “pixels” in this case are thousands of optical fibers, flexible light guides that deliver the image components to a detector. Because they can reposition the fibers, researchers can customize the balance of image and spectral data sent to the detector.
The device, for example, can be tuned to measure the chemistry of a tree to see if it’s healthy or diseased. It can do the same for a cell, a single leaf, a neighborhood or farm, or a planet. In continuous-capture mode, akin to a camera’s motor drive, it can show how the spectral “fingerprints” in a stationary scene change over time, or grab the spectral signature of a lightning bolt in real time.
Tkaczyk said TuLIPSS is unique because it works like any camera, capturing all the hyperspectral data – what researchers refer to as a data cube – in an instant. That means an airplane or orbiting satellite can snap an image of the ground quickly enough to avoid motion blur that would distort the data. Onboard processing will filter the data and send only what’s required back to Earth, saving time and energy.
“This would be an interesting tool in the case of an event like Hurricane Harvey,” Tkaczyk said. “When there’s a flood and potential contamination, a device able to fly over a reservoir could tell if that water is safe for people to drink. It would be more effective than sending someone to a site that may be hard to reach.”
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