Debris tracking explained by NASA

by Chris Bergin

NASA has announced a series of innovated solutions to the big question surrounding the agency’s Return to Flight – how to stop the same mistake that saw the demise of Columbia happening to any of their three remaining Orbiters — by being aware of the problem.

It was a chunk of insulation foam that struck Columbia’s left wing not long after throttle up on STS-107’s launch that punched a hole through the leading edge of the wing’s Thermal Protection System – a breach that proved fatal when super-hot gases purged the inner cavity on re-entry – leading to the break up of the flagship high over Texas.

Radar and around 104 cameras – including digital and high speed video systems, as well as airborne and space-based cameras – will cover all angles of the launch, to be reviewed on the ground to check for any debris striking the vehicle on its assent. The main focus will be on the re-designed External Tank (ET) – prone to shed foam as a matter of routine, albeit the routine debris is normally small and non-damaging.

“We’re expecting to see more debris than ever before, although that is due to ground stations seeing more debris than ever before,” said shuttle systems engineering manager John Muratore.

Muratore’s comments came at a press conference at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where it was also noted that debris strikes on the Shuttle during launches has been reviewed to such an extent that over one billion computer simulations have been run to see if engineers can learn of new ways to protect the Orbiter

“It’s a very difficult engineering problem,” he added.

With Discovery about to roll-out of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) around noon Florida time on Wednesday, thus achieving another milestone ahead of the ‘still under review’ May launch, many more milestones are still to be completed to the point of successfully giving a green lights for STS-114 to head to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Debris Verification Review Meeting is one such integral milestone, one that needs to satisfy all parties concerned that debris is not going to be a risk – at least one that would hold doubts over the safety of the Shuttle and her crew of seven.

“I have zero doubt..nothing is going to get by us,” said shuttle flight operations manager John Shannon, in reference to seeing any serious debris strike on the Orbiter. “The question is what to do about it then.

“I have a really high level of confidence that if we have any damage on the vehicle, we’re going to be able to detect it.”

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