An experimental infrared camera developed by NASA helped a Los Angeles TV news crew get a unique perspective on fires that raced through the Southern California seaside community of Malibu this week.

The hand-held camera, known as the Quantum Well Infrared Photo Detector (QWIP), was developed by the Microdevices Laboratory at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, CA, in partnership with Amber, a subsidiary of Raytheon Co.

The camera features infrared detectors which cover longer wavelengths than previous detectors could. This allows the camera to see through smoke and pinpoint lingering hotspots which are not normally visible. It works effectively in both daylight and nighttime conditions.

The technology proved useful for KCAL-TV, Channel 9 in Los Angeles, as the station covered the dramatic Malibu fires. The camera hopped a flight on the station's news helicopter Wednesday night, along with JPL staff scientist Dr. Mani Sundaram. This enabled the station to transmit live images of hotspots in areas which appeared innocuous to the naked eye. These hotspots are a source of concern and difficulty for firefighters, because they can flare up even after the fire appears to have subsided.

The event marked the QWIP camera's debut as a fire observing device. The technology has previously been used by NASA to monitor launches of Space Shuttles and expendable rockets. In addition, the camera has been used to observe volcanoes, mineral formations, weather and atmospheric conditions. Potential civilian applications include surveillance, night vision and sophisticated medical imaging.

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