More on the white housing NASA uses on their Nikon cameras *UPDATED*

Picture credit: NASA

On several occasions NASA has published pictures of Nikon cameras covered in special white housing. Few days ago, I tweeted the picture above but did not know much about it. PopPhoto contacted NASA and got some more details:

"What is all of that extra equipment under the white shroud?

The equipment under the thermal blanket is a Nikon SB-800 flash in a custom housing that is used during a spacewalk (EVA). The flash needed a special housing because it will not work properly in the vacuum of space. The housing holds air pressure so that the flash will function properly. There is also a bracket on the bottom (covered with a white thermal blanket) that the camera and flash mount to.

The separate finder on top is a modified Nikon SB-29 sync cord which allows them to use an auto focus illuminator for low light photography. The pictured Nikon D2Xs camera is a training unit. The actual camera that goes to space has minor firmware and a lubricant modification from a production model.

An update from an insider:

The primary job of the thermal blanket is to shield from direct sunlight(plus other minor factors that we shall overlook), as it would heat up the camera/lens/flash quickly to non-operating temperatures.

The sealed flash housing keeps the air in. But why does a flash need air to work?

1 - the bulb contains a pressurized(sea-level pressure) gas to work. Normally the surrounding air balances the pressure inside, but in an EVA your standard flash bulb will go poof in seconds.

2 - the bulb and the electronics heat up, and normal air cools it because of a phenomenon called thermal convection. Take out the air and you take out the cooling. Of course you could develop a zero-bar bulb and conduction-cooled electronics, but the whole process would be much much costlier. The enclosure does the job.

The lubricant change is necessary because at 0 bar many normal earthly-used lubricants leak gases or light fractions("outgassing"), and you risk to jeopardize both lubricant performance and the surrounding hardware(for example you could end up with a broken shutter AND a nice greasy spot or fog inside the lens).

The firmware modifications should deal with more extreme lighting conditions and possibly with noise reduction. Earth's atmosphere shields a lot of nasty cosmic rays and accelerated particles, and when they hit electronics they often translate in spurious voltages that is, more electrical noise.

It's also unlikely for them to change abruptly the camera/lens/flash model or brand because at this stage they're all in TRL-9, which means that the hardware is "mission proven", has reliably done its work many times.

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  • W E W A N T A D4 🙂

    • Canon User

      hahaha, you should cry!

    • Anonymous

      No, a D800 !

      • Guy

        No a d4x

        • No, a digital F2/FM2.

          • Jabs

            NO – a digital F3 and FA – at least choose the two pinnacles or the game changers of the Nikon film bodies or do you like the manual film cameras better?


            • The invisible man.

              I just want to thank you again for the picture viewer software, it is fantastic.
              I own you one.
              Thanks !!!!

  • NikonMikon

    Is that a kit lens on that camera? o_o Oh wait looks like 50mm 1.4

    • kaze kaze

      If my eyes are not playing tricks on me, clock-wise starting from the bottom it actually says “AF NIKKOR 35mm 1:2 D”

    • kaze kaze

      50 1.4 would have a more “pink/ yellow” tint/ coating to it, 35mm 2.0D have the more “green/ purple” tint/ coating which is evidance above.

      • chuck

        I have the 35mm 2D, this is not it.
        From the full res file here it looks like a 28mm 2.8

        • JorPet

          If the camera they used didn’t have such poor image quality at iso400 we could probably read it much easier. Even at full res that image is a mess.

          I would have been more than a little embarrassed to allow an image of mine that was that blurry and noisy out into public.

          • Looking at the exif it seems that was taken with a 5D Mark II. Unless it was hopelessly underexposed I’m surprised to see that much noise at ISO 400

      • kaze kaze

        lol… thanks @chuck, I knew my eyes are playing tricks on me, then agian, given the result on land this probably hightlights why they choose Nikon to use in space and now the big-C

        • kaze kaze


          typo typo

  • Pretty fancy.

  • Macca


  • But D2X works well in space?
    I will remember that next time I go for at spacewalk… 🙂

    • Banned

      Yes I suppose that the reason the flash doesn’t work in space is there is no oxygen to burn to get a light bulb lit. So they probably have to inject some air into an air-tight housing to be able to pop the flash. Then I guess once the oxygen in the housing is depleted you can’t fire it anymore.

      • Banned

        I wonder what firmware modification they needed? Looks like Nikon is more open with Nasa than it is with their paying customers.

        • IanZ28

          Pretty sure NASA pays for their cameras/lenses as well – might even be more than the average consumer if there is special treatments applied to the equipment.

      • Oxygen? You’re kidding right? We stopped igniting gunpowder in a trough a while back. Xenon lamps are sealed and don’t require oxygen.

        • Exactly. Most, if not all, bulbs are sealed. Besides, if a flash bulb ignites in an oxygen-rich environment, it could pose a serious fire/explosion hazard.

      • eNron

        I wonder if the air is for heat transfer. Vacuums do not conduct heat. The flash would likely overheat without some way to expell the energy. So they just package an air pocket around it.

        • Art

          Very likely. However, the flash might not work even once in a vacuum. I would not at all be surprised if under a vacuum the flashtube would burst. Flash tubes are filled under pressure so there is a real risk of the bulb bursting under a vacuum. If the bulb did survive under a vacuum, the problem is encountered again after the flash is used and the hot gasss inside increase the internal pressure even further.

          • Dr Setoium

            Just get you vacuum cleaner and try it.

            • Art

              Actually, you can get some very nice vacuum pumps from United Nuclear. Optimally, you’d use a diffusion pump to simulate true space but there, you are only talking fractional differences that probably are not significant.

        • Paul

          Vacuums don’t ‘conduct’ heat but they do ‘radiate’ it. So heat dissipation is still occurring (think, heat from the Sun comes through space). But yes, it’s somewhat less effective.

    • eNron

      It could also be a problem with electrolytic capacitors in space. Maybe they leak in the absense of atmospheric pressure.

      • Dweeb

        Yeah, I figure it’s both the caps and the tube are the issue.

  • Alex Foto

    space suit for the SB800…. nice!

  • John

    If you look at the EXIF on that pic you’ll see it was taken with a Canon.

    • Charles

      Actually it’s from an iphone.
      And that doesn’t mean anything.
      Go back to your playground kid.

  • David Teltschik
  • hi

    I’d like the modified flash cord for AF in low light!

    • BornOptimist

      The only modification must be a shorter cable, because the SC-29 has standard onboard af-assist illuminator.

  • Charles

    Well, that cuts it! If I can’t use my Nikon flash in the vacuum of space….well then, I’m switching!

    • kyoshinikon

      Pity Canons “L” lenses cant handle spaceflight…

      • For 35mm format, NASA has always used a Nikon. I’ve never heard of a Canon going up there, unless maybe it’s a personal PowerShot of one of the astronauts.

  • El Tabarnacos

    I do not think that the flash need oxigen to operate. I think that the xenon bulb is not strong enough to operate in vacuum. I think it was cheaper for them to build a pressure suit for the flash than design a new xenon tube that can sustain vacuum. Also there might be other components like the capacitors that might not work in vacuum.

  • hf

    Sometimes space stuff just annoys me.

    I wonder if the could just solve all this with a video light???

    • Dr Setoium

      A $1,000,000,000 dollar video light?

  • fotomatt

    It all looks very heavy but I suppose in space the weight doesn’t matter!

  • Someone

    Guys, D700 replacement will come out only in 2012, STOP asking for it!! Why would Nikon release a new D700 before (or even at the same time as) a new D3?

    I’ve got a D700 and its brilliant, not really sure what everyone want so much on the new D700!
    More megapixels? Get a 5D Mk2!
    Video? 5D mk2 again!
    Want a photographers camera? Get the D700. There is nothing you cannot do with a D700 and good glass on it.

    • I hate a 5D Mark II. Perhaps because it’s because of the people shooting with that camera — the images are so… predictable. I could tell without reading the EXIF or captions that an image was shot with a 5D Mark II. They all look similar. And shooting with the video part of the camera is not as easy as it looks. Horrible focusing and zooming into a subject in movie mode is virtually impossible.

      • What a load. Just take a look at all the pro video accessories you get for the 5D2 and the productions it has been used in. Sure, it’s not made for soccer dads and moms to film terabytes of video of their kids running around.

      • TotesMcgGoats

        Seriously? I own a d700 but there really isn’t much of a difference between it and the 5D in terms of “look” of an image. What your seeing thats “predictable” is current trends in image editing.

        Quit pixel peeping and just take good pictures.

        The D700 doesn’t need to be updated yet. If you want video, get a video camera or a 5D. If you want to take pictures, get a camera. and a d700 is a perfect choice for that. or a leica.

  • test engineer

    Don’t worry about the flash tube. A change of only 1 atmosphere difference in the surrounding pressure (just 14.7 psi, and how many square inches are there on that little tube?) is next to nothing in terms of the strength of the glass tube. If that was a serious risk then none of them would even survive the minor jostling that happen from normal handling. They are strong enough. Yes, vacuum is a severe environment but generally not in terms of the strength of materials.

    The most significant issue is the lack of convection cooling of the electronics. All you have to do is to read the forums about overheating in the case of the SB-900 (at SEA level) to guess that it will be a factor with pretty much every flash when there is no convection.

    The capacitors may also have a minor role.

    • Soap

      If it were a convection issue why is the pressure suit heavy fabric and apparently insulated? Dry air has a very low thermal mass and you have created little more than a thermos bottle with likely less than 110% of the thermal capacity of the original SB unit (do the math – assume the batteries are not viable heat sinks and that 90% of the unit’s mass is non-viable plastic, pressurizing the unit adds nothing to the thermal mass even with the conservative guess of 10%).

      I have no idea what the rationale is, but cooling appears very unlikely.

      • PBDJr

        I think it has more to do with arcing than cooling. Air acts an insulator. If air pressure is lowered sparks jump a gap more easily. I know that in commercial aricraft flying at no more than 40k feet special consideration is given to electric wiring outside the pressure vessel.

        • Soap

          I like this theory (in that I can’t counter it)!

  • Jake

    Its a flash!? just guessing..

  • harry couvert

    in space, no one can hear your flash

  • Unremarkableguy

    Great article! I enjoyed the read.

  • david

    I want one for my K-5 so I can take snapz on MFing HOTH

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