NASA senses a safer Return to Flight

by Chris Bergin

A new network of sensors to be embedded into the wings of each orbiter has been developed for the Return to Flight missions later this year. It is hoped these will prevent a similar fate to that which happened to Columbia in 2003.

Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories are helping NASA ensure the safety of Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-114) by moulding the sensors into the leading edge of each individual wing, along with the use of special detection techniques such as the extended boom that the Shuttle will use to inspect her own Themal Protection System (TPS).
It has been acknowledged that Shuttle Columbia was hit by a piece of insulation foam from the external tank not long after throttle up, striking the left wing and punching a hole that would be breached by super-hot gases on re-entry.  This led to the break up of the Orbiter.
Columbia and her crew were not aware of the impact.
Now thanks to the advance in technology, NASA’s three Shuttles:  Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour, will know if they have an impact on the wing.  This will be due to the 88 new sensors ensuring the Orbiters feel any impact and make their crew aware of this.  The sensors will also enable the crew to realise the gravity of any such impact.
“If they detect a significant hit they could take safe haven at the International Space Station and figure out what to do and how to fix the damage,” Sandia engineer Ken Gwinn said. “If astronauts on the space Shuttle Columbia had known that a piece of foam had damaged their wing, they might have been able to prevent the re-entry (break-up) that killed the entire crew on Feb. 1, 2003.”

It was after the Columbia disaster that Sandia developed computer models and structural analyses to help determine the cause. Now officials are using those same models to make the other shuttles safer.

“These sensors and the information we get from them will give everyone a much better understanding of what’s happening with the whole system,” commented Gwinn. “I think this is a big advance in their safety and knowledge of what’s going on.”

Further improvements to ensure the safety of space flight have been undertaken. “NASA has also added a network of cameras and improved the tiles and foam so nothing that big can break off again,” Gwinn remarked.

Sandia National Laboratories are now working on a bigger plan to create software that ties all the vibration sensors into a network that will tell astronauts and NASA agents on the ground if something is amiss. This has taken about a year and a half to develop, as scientists have run hundreds of calculations to calibrate the new sensor network.

“The final thing we’ll give them is a software package that lets NASA put in all the conditions of what they think the material was that hit and where,” said Sandia scientist David Crawford. “They can then take that and superimpose it on a model of the shuttle to see what happened.”

With all these precautionary measures in place, it is hoped that NASA will assure a safe Return to Flight this year. 

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