National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Date of this Version



Life Sciences in Space Research 3 (2014) 32–44


U.S. Government Work


Fluorescent imaging offers the ability to monitor biological functions, in this case biological responses to space-related environments. For plants, fluorescent imaging can include general health indicators such as chlorophyll fluorescence as well as specific metabolic indicators such as engineered fluorescent reporters. This paper describes the Flex Imager a fluorescent imaging payload designed for Middeck Locker deployment and now tested on multiple flight and flight-related platforms. The Flex Imager and associated payload elements have been developed with a focus on ‘flexibility’ allowing for multiple imaging modalities and change-out of individual imaging or control components in the field. The imaging platform is contained within the standard Middeck Locker spaceflight form factor, with components affixed to a baseplate that permits easy rearrangement and fine adjustment of components. The Flex Imager utilizes standard software packages to simplify operation, operator training, and evaluation by flight provider flight test engineers, or by researchers processing the raw data. Images are obtained using a commercial cooled CCD image sensor, with light-emitting diodes for excitation and a suite of filters that allow biological samples to be imaged over wavelength bands of interest. Although baselined for the monitoring of green fluorescent protein and chlorophyll fluorescence from Arabidopsis samples, the Flex Imager payload permits imaging of any biological sample contained within a standard 10 cm by 10 cm square Petri plate. A sample holder was developed to secure sample plates under different flight profiles while permitting sample change-out should crewed operations be possible. In addition to crew-directed imaging, autonomous or telemetric operation of the payload is also a viable operational mode. An infrared camera has also been integrated into the Flex Imager payload to allow concurrent fluorescent and thermal imaging of samples. The Flex Imager has been utilized to assess, in real-time, the response of plants to novel environments including various spaceflight analogs, including several parabolic flight environments as well as hypobaric plant growth chambers. Basic performance results obtained under these operational environments, as well as laboratory-based tests are described. The Flex Imager has also been designed to be compatible with emerging suborbital platforms.