Space camera will help detect skin cancer on Earth

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Space-based cameras originally designed to combat famine in Africa by monitoring vegetation are being adapted to help detect diseases such as skin cancer, the ESA announced on Friday.

The Proba-V vegetation-scanning satellite’s high-speed camera and digital infrared sensors can be used with a standard medical scanner, allowing doctors to look deeper into human skin tissue and detect skin diseases earlier than ever before.

It is one of several non-space applications for the technology currently under consideration, the agency explained. Other possible uses include improving solar cell production and spotting items that are defective while they’re still on the assembly line.

Telling the difference between two green trees

The Proba-V camera, which was developed for the ESA by a Belgian firm known as Xenics, is able to see light that we cannot by looking at in the shortwave infrared range. It also has a unique wide field of view that can create a new image of out planet’s flora every 48 hours.

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“To humans, two green trees could look similar. But with this camera, we might detect that one is growing well and the other is unhealthy,” ESA’s Michael Francois explained.

Using its sensor, the Proba-V can monitor the Amazon rainforest or help African farmers predict crop yields.

“Based on the experience of preceding years, you can determine whether crop growth is on schedule or behind, and you can get early information on whether there will be sufficient food,” noted Koen van der Zanden from Xenics.

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“The high-speed resolution of our ‘line-scan’ cameras makes them ideal for detecting hidden defects on fast-moving production lines, such as bottle manufacturing or sorting different types of plastics for recycling – all of which look similar to the human eye,” Koen added. “The items are moving fast, just like Earth spins below the satellite, so by scanning one complete line at a time we can quickly cover the whole area.”

Some specs

The Proba-V camera is capable of generating a 2250 kilometer wide picture of the land with each sweep of its 3072-pixel line sensor, the ESA said. Unlike conventional rectangular detectors such as those used in off-the-shelf digital cameras, however, the satellite’s sensor captures information one line at a time and does so with incredible speed.

As the target moves past, Proba-V creates a complete image, which increases the efficiency of imaging rapid objects on production lines. That ability, combined with its capability to “see the unseeable,” makes commercialization of the technology attractive and feasible.

Skin diseases and solar panels

Xenics is currently adapting their invention for use by doctors, with the idea that their technology will be able to improve a doctor’s ability to diagnose skin diseases. While scanners have been able to provide detailed cross-section images of living tissue for more than two decades, their space camera’s sensitivity at some wavelengths allow it to look deeper in search of diseases.

“It may still be a few years away but once our sensors start helping doctors to diagnose skin diseases and catch them at earlier stages, then we can all feel doubly proud of this spin-off from space,” Koen explained.

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In addition, this capability allows the device to quickly spot defects on solar panels. When those panels are illuminated, the camera can gauge their efficiency quickly by spotting any dulling of the weak glow the cells emit when they absorb light, the ESA explained.

“The transfer of this specially developed camera technology for ESA’s Proba-V has positioned a European company in a leading position globally for linear shortwave infrared sensor technology,” added Sam Waes from the ESA’s Belgian technology broker, Verhaert. “It is an excellent demonstration of how investments in our space programs help European industry benefit from space technology spin-offs.”


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