ISU helping RTF foam analysing

by Chris Bergin

Iowa State University could have a hand in helping the Space Shuttle Return to Flight.

The university has tested samples of foam insulation for the shuttle’s external fuel tanks. ISU is one of dozens of locations nationwide selected by NASA to determine who can best analyze the foam.

Researchers in Ames have spent the past week using X-rays to examine a 4-inch-thick sample piece of foam.

“The people at NASA have implanted some defects at known locations of different sizes,” explained ISU physicist Terry Je nsen. ” We’re scanning around to see if we can pick them up.”

The Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala, coordinated the tests. NASA asked university researchers not to release specific details about the foam’s composition, and said the tests are intended to find ways to reduce debris from the External Tank during the Shuttle’s ascent.

A piece of foam insulation broke off a fuel tank and struck Shuttle Columbia after launch, causing damage that led to the loss of the Orbiter in 2003. The Shuttle program was subsequently grounded as safety procedures were reevaluated.

NASA had initially scheduled a May launch for space shuttle Discovery. In April, the launch window was pushed to July over concerns about ice buildup on the external fuel tanks.

ISU tested the foam sample at its Center for Nondestructive Evaluation, which specializes in testing components for faults without breaking the material, said Bruce Thompson , the center’s director.

Airplane makers and vendors are among companies that have contracted with the center for such tests. NASA also has contracted with the center in the past for tests of various components, Thompson said. Besides X-rays, non-invasive methods employed by the center include ultrasonics and magnetic techniques.

Friday, ISU had completed tests of the foam insulation but still had to analyze the data. Results will be sent to NASA by next week. NASA officials in Alabama did not respond to questions on whether the university chosen would receive future projects analysing the foam.

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