On Orbit Spacecraft Inspection - NASA
In 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia was destroyed upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere
After the unfortunate February 1, 2003 disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia while re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, NASA asked Neptec to join the team investigating the cause of the accident. That investigation concluded that upon lift off a large piece of foam had fallen from the shuttle’s external tank and fatally breached the spacecraft wing.
To ensure that the space shuttles could resume operation after a two year hiatus and be safely returned to Earth at the end of each mission NASA decided they would need a means of inspecting the critical parts of the shuttle for damage on orbit. Once again they turned to Neptec to develop a solution.
Neptec’s LCS flew as a mandatory system on all Shuttle missions from 2005 onwards
Neptec produced a Laser Camera System (LCS) to measure damage to the thermal protection system. What made the LCS particularly effective was that it was able to render a high accuracy three-dimensional map of damage to the shuttle’s hull. That data was relayed back to Johnson Space Center where engineers could use a 3D printer to produce a physical model.
“We didn’t have to do this every flight,” says NASA’s David Moyer, who helped ensure shuttle safety, “but it was nice to have those models because when we did have those cases where there was damage, we were able to give those high-definition models and the underlying measurements to the mission’s damage assessment team.”
The LCS was the critical system for repair decisions on both STS-118 and STS-122.
STS-118 sustained damage that had the capacity to pose a threat to the crew and shuttle upon re-entry. The LCS was used to gather 3D data, enabling NASA to duplicate the damage and conduct tests in a simulated environment. This effort concluded that the shuttle was safe for re-entry.
Damage was incurred on STS-122 when part of the thermal blanket lifted. The LCS was used to inspect this area, allowing NASA to determine that the damage did not pose a threat to the shuttle upon re-entry.
Neptec’s Laser Camera Systems were used on every space shuttle mission from the resumption of shuttle operations in July 2005 until the very last shuttle landed in July 2011.
Image credit NASA