NASA Level Technology On Our Cell Phones

Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author, and a self-proclaimed science evangelist. She is the creator of a podcast series called Science Underground. She joins Hari to discuss how satellite cameras made by NASA became the cameras in our cell phones.


Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author, and a self-proclaimed science evangelist.

She is the creator of a podcast series called 'Science Underground.'

She joins me now to discuss how satellite cameras made by NASA became the cameras in our cellphones.

I mean, I -- I... You know, I haven't picked up my old-fashioned camera in a long time.


This is the default camera that I use.

Right, right.

And they're everywhere.

They are.

They're ubiquitous.

But that technology for the camera, you have NASA to thank for that.

How did it get from NASA to here?

Well, NASA had a problem.

Just like you're packing up a car and you're trying to fill up the trunk, or if you're trying to put stuff in the overhead, they have a limited amount of space that they can put up there, and they had a camera called a CCD camera -- charge-coupled device camera -- that was quite large.

Some of them are as big as a washing machine, and that's not going to work.


So, there was a very smart scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

This is the time when microelectronics are becoming hot.

He's like, 'Well, look.

Why don't we figure out how to make a camera on a chip?'

And so that's what he made.

It's called a CMOS chip.

It's complementary metal-oxide semiconductor, and all that's doing is telling you what it's made out of.

Scientists are not particularly good at marketing names, but that's what it's called.

And so, this chip became ubiquitous.

It was used in satellites.

Before, they used to be able to take pictures at one angle, but now they can take it at multiple angles with the satellite.

But then it started to have other uses, as well.

It's in your cellphone.

And, every year, four billion of these cameras are being made.

Are these cameras, the lenses, are they going to get better and better and better?

Have they plateaued?

Or are there just different use cases for them now?

Well, they're making better cameras.

So, they... I don't know what the next generation entails, because they wouldn't share that with me, but they are always making better cameras.

You can have greater sensitivity.

You can have different types of lenses.

But I don't know what the next gen is -- all the specifications for the next generation, but I do know that they're working on it.

Is it influencing how we communicate?

It seems that images have become more and more important to try and get a point across.

I think we're definitely in this visual era.

I mean, we used to be more where we listened to things.

You would read a book or you would hear someone, maybe a lecture, but now it's all visual, and that seems to be the way that we communicate.

You know, sometimes you can get a text, and it doesn't even have a message.

It's just a picture.

What happens -- Now, this is the camera that NASA had years and years and years ago.

It's finally in our cellphones.


What have they got now, and how long does it take to get that?

Well, they had both.

They don't bring them back.

I mean, they're... [ Both chuckle ] It just keeps going.


You know, and that's the reason why it was great to have the technology, to have digital cameras, because if they had film, they would take pictures, but we would never get them back because we can't process them.

You know, what I always wonder about is the satellites that NASA had sent up into space decades ago...


The images that we're getting back from these far-off places, those are with pretty old, old, old camera technology.

Yeah, it's those cameras that, you know, when your uncle had that was this -- that huge.

I mean, that's the CCD camera.

So the satellites we're sending up today will obviously have at least the off-the-shelf technology, if not something better.

They'll have better.


All right, Ainissa Ramirez.

Thanks so much.

Thank you.