Discovery's safety checked by laser

NASA really wants to know if it will be safe for its shuttle to come back to Earth. So it will check the exterior of Discovery from the ground to improve safety when it's launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A laser system will be on board of Discovery to check in real time to see if the shuttle is damaged or not.

I've told you last year about Neptec's Laser Camera System (LCS) used to see if it was safe for NASA's shuttles to come back to Earth (see here or there). Now, the Ottawa Business Journal reports that NASA will check the exterior of Discovery from the ground to improve safety. In two days, if weather is fine, this laser system will be on board of Discovery when it's launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But read more...

But why using such a system in space? Of course, the answer is: to improve safety. Here are some details provided by the Ottawa Business Journal.

NASA will use the camera system to inspect the exterior of the shuttle to determine whether it is safe to return to earth. NASA is worried that foam breaking away from the shuttle's external fuel tank during launch could damage the spacecraft.
Neptec's laser camera is mounted to an inspection boom on the Canadarm. It will provide NASA's ground crew with a 3D image of any damaged area, enabling engineers to determine if the area needs to be repaired.

But Neptec's LCS can also be used on Earth. As an example, here is a scan of an apple sent to me by the company (Credit: Neptec).

Scan of an apple by Neptec's Laser Camera System

And below is a picture of a scan of the damaged thermal tile on last year’s flight (Credit: Neptec).

Scan of an area of the underside of Discovery wing

[This is] a false colour Laser Camera system (LCS) scan of an area of the underside of the shuttle wing. The analysis shows a small area of missing tile material. The scan is from the shuttle wing "chine" area near where the wing joins the body of the shuttle and about five tile rows forward of the trailing edge of the wing. The image is colour coded such that deeper damage is coloured red. Based on analysis of this data NASA concluded that this area does not represent a threat to the shuttle on re-entry.

Neptec provided other details about this imminent launch in this press release (June 27, 2006).

The LCS uses laser technology that can detect a crack as small as half a millimeter, or about twice the width of a standard business card, from up to four meters away. Unlike traditional cameras, Neptec’s LCS has the ability to operate regardless of available light, a crucial feature on the space shuttle where the sun rises and sets 16 times per day.
"We are there to make sure that NASA gets the best information possible to allow them to make decisions which are critical for the safety of the astronauts on board the shuttle," said Iain Christie, VP of Research and Development at Neptec.

The small Canadian firm will have twelve employees working day and night to be sure their system works fine. But they think that there will be no problem at all with this new NASA's mission. We'll see in a few days if they were right.

Sources: Ottawa Business Journal, June 28, 2006; and Neptec web site

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