What Is NASA Doing With the 53 Nikon D5 Cameras It Just Ordered?

What Is NASA Doing With the 53 Nikon D5 Cameras It Just Ordered?

NASA has a long history of sending cameras to space. Most notably, Hasselblad medium-format and Nikon SLRs and DSLRs have been NASA's go-tos for decades. But in a recent order that must be amongst the largest in its history for a single order of camera bodies, NASA just bought 53 Nikon D5 cameras worth over $340,000. What off Earth could NASA be doing with all those D5s?

While NASA has and still does use a good number of modern Nikon cameras to photograph Earth from low orbit, examine its spacecraft, and document life in space (these include a set of 10 D4 bodies that are supposedly used to check solar panels and outer surfaces of the ISS), 53 cameras is a huge investment, not to mention a lot of firepower in one chunk. It's hard to imagine that NASA would buy so many cameras, however, without a specific purpose for them to be used at once.

On one hand, a few of those bodies could be extraneous in case something goes wrong or needs to be replaced. But any organization would likely have bought this many units over time so those used later would be newer models by the time they were purchased — unless, of course, they are for one purpose alone. The only kinds of setups I can think of that require this many cameras are bullet-time rigs made for capturing multiple images of the same subject at the same time, but at different perspectives. While this could give NASA insight into a particular fast-acting reaction (rocket launch, anyone?) such as something with fire as shown in the video below, it's hard to imagine why they'd go for such a specialized and expensive body for a setup like this.

Of course, NASA could simply be replacing all of its current bodies at once. We photographers do this all the time to have a more uniform experience on our event shoots, although at a slightly lower volume.

Still, what are your thoughts on why NASA needs 53 Nikon D5 bodies? Especially with the D850 now out, the best arguments would take into account the low-light and frame-rate advantages of the D5 over the D850.

Fun fact: if NASA sends all 53 bodies to space with just the included battery, it will cost nearly $130,000 to get that weight to space on the most cost-effective Falcon Heavy rocket. With plenty of options in between, the most expensive scenario would cost $1.5 million just to get the D5 cameras to space if NASA used the Atlas V. Needless to say, the bigger mistake is likely putting the wrong cameras into orbit. So you can bet NASA thought long and hard about this D5 purchase. They want those for a reason.

[via NikonRumors]

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Diko Jelev's picture

I have one single question: Why D5s, instead of 850Ds? Why?

Matt Rennells's picture

There really couldn't only be 5 reasons, timing (they need the cameras now), framerate, high ISO dynamic range, durability, or what is most likely, they put in a purchase order through the government system for approval months ago, and finally got approval now. It would be a further delay to get approval again, even if it would save money, it might end up costing more with the delay.

Also, if memory serves me correctly, once a camera on the ISS is no longer able to be used, it is just ejected into space. It is evidently cheaper to replace them than the cost to bring them back to earth.

Anonymous's picture

Are you referring to the Sony 850D or Nikon's D850? In either case...my guess is high ISO performance.

Diko Jelev's picture

NIKON D850 - higher ISO crossed my mind as well. Even though I think Nikon D850 has better DR.

Anonymous's picture

You're not going to want to send bleeding edge technology into space. You want something proven to be a workhorse.

Robert Rafai's picture

True, D5 is already tested and it's failure free.. They won't send D750 in space for sure :) Except they send few spare pieces heehehhehe.

Robert Rafai's picture

Because, They can :)

Maybe for an array for extreme resolution?

Diko Jelev's picture

Could be, but that array should be built in open space where micro debris would destroy them.

Mark Harris's picture

NASA employs around 20 000 people in at least 20 different sites, so the boring suggestion of restocking is quite reasonable. That would be just a couple of cameras per site.
But I really hope they are going to do something cool with them.

Highly unlikely. Anything special or cool would be a custom build. This is mostly to get with the times in terms of PR and public perception. The better the document their activities and present themselves, the most likely they will receive government funding. Consumer cameras have decent sensors, but lack in the processing/tethering department. It's better to just have a sensor output to a processor which compresses and codes each image/video file for wireless transmission, which at that point the unit they build will be sent remotely back to Earth for actual processing.

From Nikon's Site:
"NASA plans to use the cameras both at astronaut training facilities on Earth, and for recording intra- and extravehicular activities at the International Space Station (ISS)."

Spy Black's picture

It must piss Canon lovers off to no end that there are no Canons in space. :-)

Now I kind of wish there was one so astronauts could say "I should a canon... in space".

joe o sullivan's picture

Just "toys for the lads" I'd say..