How NASA helped the digital camera soar to success

Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering

November 24, 2017

Eric Fossum

"Faster. Better. Cheaper. Those were the instructions of then NASA administrator, Daniel Goldin, regarding space missions of the 1990s," writes The QE Prize. "While not a mantra synonymous with success during that time, the programme did deliver one spectacular triumph. And, like freeze-dried food, memory foam mattresses and Speedo swimsuits, the technology is used every day on Earth, by millions of people.

"In the early 90s, while working for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, engineer Eric Fossum developed CMOS image sensors. CMOS sensors, or complementary metal oxide semiconductors, are the final evolution of the digital image sensors invented by George Smith and Michael Tompsett back in the 1970s. Smaller in size, these new sensors used much less power and were much cheaper to make than their predecessors.  

"'The CMOS sensor uses both the other winners’ inventions,' said Fossum. 'We basically made a small charge coupled device, or CCD, inside every pixel. Part of that little CCD in each pixel is the photo sensor part, and that is the pinned photodiode.'"

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