How Corning technology in the sky sees the unseen


New satellites equipped with Corning’s advanced hyperspectral-imaging technology can detect pipeline leaks and other environmental issues, providing precise monitoring and exploration capabilities for businesses and governments. 

Image courtesy of Orbital Sidekick

Look up. Right now, up in the ionosphere, about 310 miles above Earth’s surface, three dishwasher-sized satellites are orbiting our planet to help mitigate climate change.

Launched by Silicon Valley start-up Orbital Sidekick (OSK), these first three satellites will soon be joined by three more, forming OSK’s GHOSt (Global Hyperspectral Observation Satellite) constellation. Each of these six spacecrafts features a Corning hyperspectral imaging sensor – a technology capable of seeing specific materials on Earth from space with better precision than ground-based detection methods.

A GHOSt satellite awaits launch via a SpaceX rocket. Image: Orbital Sidekick

One vital mission for the satellites? Monitoring oil and gas pipelines for leaks, especially leaks of methane – a greenhouse gas that can be 100 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. The sooner OSK can report leaks or threats to their customers’ operations, the faster they can be addressed.

“Each night, when we see a shimmering satellite, we feel pride knowing that we have helped enable customers like Orbital Sidekick to transform the ecology of the planet for the better,” says Bob Benson, product development manager, Hyperspectral Imaging.

How Corning’s Hyperspectral Sensor Works

Corning’s hyperspectral sensor acts like a top-notch detective. It provides critical information to OSK’s analytics team which can then isolate the distinctive spectral “fingerprints” left by materials like water, methane, or a corn crop. A material’s unique spectral signature is based on how it reflects or emits electromagnetic energy, also known as light waves.

The human eye can only see light waves with wavelengths between 450-700 nanometers, a very narrow slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. In comparison, Corning hyperspectral sensors cover the full spectral range from 400 to 2500 nanometers, including infrared and ultraviolet light waves.

Corning’s hyperspectral sensors can see what would go unseen by less granular technologies. Following data collection by the Corning sensor, and its transfer back to earth, OSK software tools process images in a way that brings unprecedented precision to the hunt for specific materials.

Two GHOSt satellites being equipped with Corning’s hyperspectral sensor technology at Corning’s Keene, New Hampshire, facility.

“Together with Corning, we developed some of the most advanced hyperspectral imaging satellites that exist today, capturing more than 500 bands of light – which is 100X more spectral information than other satellites,” says Dan Katz, OSK’s CEO. “We can now survey an entire transcontinental pipeline in hours rather than weeks. This year alone, we’ll monitor 124,000 miles of pipeline and are already beginning to identify and report suspected methane leaks, liquid hydrocarbon leaks, and intrusions like construction that could cause leaks.”

The Corning Advantage

Corning’s deep expertise in advanced optics, spectrometry, and fabrication coupled with an ongoing commitment to research and development make for seamless collaborations with customers like OSK.

“Our quality and our vertical integration blow customers away,” says Benson. “Corning has expertise from the very base materials – like sand – all the way up to the highest-end applications, such as spacecraft.”

Unlike hyperspectral products with two sensors, Corning’s hyperspectral solution delivers its powerful 400-2500nm range with a single sensor. This reduces the complications of recording and post-processing imagery from two sensors, helping to improve efficiency. And Corning makes the sensor’s supporting components from aluminum, rather than from heavier glass mirrors. A lighter payload can make all the difference for successful deployment aboard both drones and satellites.

Corning’s Ryan Barlow, Eric Bower, and Jesse Brown working on the OSK project

The thrill of contributing to such space-based projects never gets old.

“Our Keene, New Hampshire, team is so proud to have delivered an outstanding solution for Orbital Sidekick,” says Jesse Brown, a hyperspectral system integration engineer. “At 3 a.m. on launch day, we were on the ground cheering.”

The View Ahead

Critical energy infrastructure monitoring is only the start of what OSK’s GHOSt constellation may offer.

“By combining Corning’s advanced hyperspectral sensor with OSK’s intelligence and analytics, we foresee future, life-changing applications for agriculture, mineral exploration, carbon offset verification, defense, and more,” says Tushar Prabhakar, OSK’s co-founder and COO. “We’re now able to offer insights to support sustainability and safety efforts, anywhere in the world.”

Corning teams look forward to industry’s further adoption of the technology.

“Our customers are only just beginning to tap into the potential of hyperspectral technology,” says Rick Holasek, business development manager, Advanced Optics. “Corning is ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with our customers, big and small, to enable the next generation of progress."