When NASA hired chemist Barbara Askins to salvage the photos they were getting back from astronauts, they never expected she’d revolutionize how to restore details to underexposed photographs.

In 1975, NASA hired Barbara S. Askins to work at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. She was tasked with researching how the space agency used to develop their astronomical and geological photographs, and completely blew them away with a new process of enhancing the photographs with radioactive materials. The new procedure managed to restore detail in otherwise-useless underexposed negatives, and was so successful that its utility quickly spread beyond NASA into improving X-ray technology and restoring old photographs.

Askins figured out that she could use an underexposed negative to create a second, enhanced exposure to increase the limits of photographic detection. She salvaged badly underexposed radiographs by taking the silver of the original image and activating it with a radioactive compound to make a new exposure. This new exposure was an autoradiograph: an image created by using the radiation from the image source to expose the film. It reproduces the original image but with a significant increase in density and contrast, salvaging images that were underexposed up to 80 or even 90%. The processes was soon applied to images taken by astronauts from space, to medical X-rays, and to enhance old photographs.

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Askins won the National Inventor of the Year in 1978 for this process. Her “Method of Obtaining Intensified Image from Developed Photographic Films and Plates” was awarded U.S. patent No. 4,101,780 in July of the same year.

[Photographic image intensification by autoradiography | Autoradiographic image intensification: applications in medical radiography]

Top image: Barbara Askins in her NASA research lab. Credit: NASA


Contact the author at mika.mckinnon@io9.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.