The space shuttle's history in pictures

The space shuttle's history in pictures

Summary: Atlantis's mission to the International Space Station is the final flight in the 30-year-old space shuttle programme, which has pushed technology to its limits

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TOPICS: After Hours
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  • Space shuttle cockpit

    The shuttle features four onboard computers running the same software on different hardware, which together check each other's work. A fifth backup computer runs an entirely separate system in the event the other four fail.

    In 1990, Nasa upgraded the computers, raising the memory 2.5 times to 1MB.

    From 1999, 'glass cockpit' technology was added to the orbiters, providing more up-to-date display screens on the flight deck.

    Photo credit: Nasa

  • Shuttle landing in desert

    Discovery glides to a landing at Edwards Air Force base in 2008. 

    The shuttle typically begins its return flight around half the world away from its landing site. It angles its nose up at 40 degrees, allowing the black tiling underneath to bear the brunt of the 1,600° C heat of re-entry.

    When the craft drops below the speed of sound, at around 50,000 feet, the commander takes control. Despite the similarity of its shape to an ordinary aircraft, the shuttle makes its final approach to the runway 20 times faster than the average plane.

    The shuttle was originally intended to have air-breathing jet engines to allow it to fly as an aircraft on re-entry; however, cost and weight considerations left it entirely unpowered during the descent, making it the heaviest and fastest glider in history.

    Photo credit: Nasa

  • Hubble Space Telescope repair

    In its 30-year history, the space-shuttle programme has carried 179 payloads into orbit and retrieved 52 for return to Earth. (In fact, Nasa calculates that 97 percent of man-made material that has returned safely from space has done so courtesy of a space shuttle).

    One of the shuttle's most important missions was Endeavour's successful repair of the Hubble Space Telescope on mission STS-61 in 1993 (above), three years after Discovery had deployed it.

    Hubble's images were famously distorted by a mirror that had been ground to the wrong shape. Although it was impossible to remove the mirror in space, the technically fraught servicing mission in 1993 (captured in an early Imax film) corrected the telescope by fitting the COSTAR adaptive package into the telescope, and paved the way for ground-breaking observations.

    Best known for its stunning images of the cosmos, Hubble made its one-millionth science observation on 4 July, 2011. It has captured 50 terabytes of data to date.

    Photo credit: Nasa

Topic: After Hours

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