Projects left behind
For those initial products I mentioned, the laser control instruments – we needed liquid crystal cells to make those. We could get those made by third parties, but half the time, they’d be no good because some of these companies weren’t very capable. We decided to start making them ourselves, for the tunable filters. We set up our first foundry to do that back in Cambridge.
We developed the first one there, in a clean room, to make our own cells. Somewhere along the way, I had a grant from NASA to put these things on satellites to look at Earth for environmental sensing. You can determine an awful lot about vegetation and moisture, and all this stuff with visible and near infrared systems using a tunable filter.
There was a guy named Greg Bearman, and he and another fellow, Dr. Tom Chrien, were program sponsors of a couple of grants that I got there. I think Greg’s title was exobiologist or chief exobiologist at the jet propulsion lab. Greg’s another wonderful person, and he began qualifying these photos, which by that time – around ‘95 or ’97 – we were learning how to make them pretty reliably. Cliff had come up with the idea to make them thermally rugged, which was a patented and really essential ingredient to make these things well. Greg started qualifying them for missions to Mars. He was going to put this thing on a Mars Rover and drive around and look with all the spectral knowledge that you can.
Meanwhile, Tom Chrien was looking at putting them in sensors to fly over the Earth as part of the Earth Observing System (EOS). It was a well-intentioned 1980s environmental mission. NASA was going to help us understand earth. The politicians didn’t really want to learn about Earth, so it got slowly defunded. But, the work to Mars continued.
We wound up surviving the equivalent of a Cassini rocket launch. It was 50 Gs or something ridiculous and being frozen to liquid nitrogen, surviving extended radiation and outer space. We were qualifying these tunable filters to go to Mars.
Somewhere around this point, I think in 2000, NASA had terrible luck with rockets destined for Mars blowing up on the launchpad there. Two or three of them in a row. Everybody who was in queue to have their thing fly to Mars on the next one has to take a step back. Everyone’s lost their place in line by two or three of these things. Of course, they also had to stop and have a period of self-reflection on why this was happening.
After the third one blew up, people thought, “Okay, I’m going to go do something else. If I’m ambitious and my interests are of this type, it’s not going to happen by going to Mars.” Greg was one of them. We never actually got built into anything that would fly to Mars, but we did wind up with tunable filters. I think there’s two of them still in the International Space Station. Japan has made, I believe, the smallest imaging satellite ever launched. It’s about the size of a beach ball and it’s basically a camera, a tunable filter, a lens, and some telemetry gear.
We did get into space, but we didn’t get into deep space because of all that. But Greg Bearman is interesting. He was an imaging wizard and a Jewish guy, and he was very interested in Judaica and the ancient Judaica. I remember him coming out with a bunch of pot shards from 300, 400 years ago to look at them and make some spectral measurements using tunable filters. He wound up doing work where these tunable filters were used to image the Dead Sea Scrolls. I remember being called by somebody from the BBC – they were going to make a documentary about this. I don’t know whether they ever did.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were, as I remember, found just after World War II, and they’d been in some cave that adjoins the ocean. It had been often wet and dry and wet and dry, and they were caked in all this crud. When they were found, the first question was, what are they? The next was, are they authentic and old? And then, how are we going to make any sense of them? Because they’re all covered in this crud. They ended up using multispectral imaging to distinguish superficial dark black-colored crud from 4,000 or 5,000-year-old ink underneath it, because they’re not the same in infrared. The FBI built a few forensic systems on the same premise. I can tell that you forged this check or changed the amount, because the ink looks like the same blue, but in the infrared it’s not – there are subtle, spectral differences.
There was one project which was to image the Sistine Chapel. It underwent a tremendous renovation. I think it took about two years, for the ceiling where Michelangelo’s frescoes were. Before they touched anything, they wanted every possible way of recording the state of this thing, both for posterity, and in case anything happens. Somebody went up there with this imaging station, which we’d helped them put together. They were up on scaffolding six feet from the surface, taking pictures through the visible in the near infrared. I did ask, “Can I come with?” It was a no.
These are all the things we left behind when we decided to focus on life science. They were pretty cool, but we realized we couldn’t pursue all these neat forensic uses or all these other different things, because we were going to vaporize. It was with some regret because some of these things were awesome. We really wrestled with it.