NASA using high-tech sensors to inspect shuttle

NASA scientists and engineers are using high-tech components aboard the space shuttle Discovery to painstakingly inspect the spacecraft for launch-related damage as concerns linger about a piece of insulating foam that broke away from the craft's external fuel tank during liftoff.

Two laser sensors, a black-and-white camera and a 50-foot extension boom added to the shuttle's robotic arm allow NASA engineers to carefully peruse every square inch of the spacecraft's outer surface for flaws that could endanger its return to Earth after its 12-day mission.

So far, NASA officials have said that they don't believe that the 2.5-foot-long piece of foam struck or damaged the shuttle as it fell off the external tank during Tuesday's launch. But the inspections are being done to rule out any damage.

Also adding to NASA's worries is the apparent loss of a 1.5-inch section of one of the shuttle's thousands of ceramic heat shield tiles. The piece that dislodged is near the craft's front landing gear door. That area of the spacecraft is also being carefully reviewed by engineers back on Earth using the images from the sensors.

Since Tuesday's launch, the shuttle crew and the astronauts in the International Space Station have been taking photographs and laser images of the shuttle to allow engineers on Earth to evaluate its condition. The new lasers and boom extension were added to the shuttle after the shuttle Columbia was lost on re-entry in February 2003. On that flight, launch-related damage from a piece of foam that smashed into the leading edge of a wing caused a hole that allowed hot gases to enter and burn the ship from the inside upon re-entry, destroying the vehicle and killing all seven astronauts on board.

The exterior inspections of Discovery are being conducted as part of the mission's original schedule, said Debbie Rahn, a spokeswoman for the space agency, which is providing updated flight information online. "Obviously, we want to understand the state of the vehicle before the crew returns," she said. Images received so far by NASA have been very clear, helping engineers study the condition of the vehicle, she said.

The boom extension was built by the Brampton, Ontario-based space missions group of Canadian technology vendor MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., using spare parts from the original robotic arm. Herb Goettmann, an engineer at MDA, said the specialized laser sensors and camera positioned at the end of the extension can be operated by the shuttle crew to collect detailed images of tiles and protective panels. The data is then downloaded to engineers on Earth.

The extension doubles the length of the shuttle's robotic arm, and the camera and sensors each have a particular use. For example, NASA's Intensified Television Camera includes an adjustable zoom lens and can take black-and-white pictures in lighting conditions ranging from very dim to bright.

Another component is a Laser Dynamic Range Imager (LDRI) that was designed and built at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. NASA said the LDRI produces 2-D and 3-D image data as the sensor scans the shuttle surfaces. In 3-D mode, the scanner colors the images like a Doppler weather radar image, with each color representing the depth of surface irregularities.

The third device on the boom is a laser camera from Neptec Design Group Ltd. in Ottawa that scans the shuttle's surface and records data that can be used to create an image model of the surface. The camera uses the reflection of laser light beamed against the surface to measure the depth and other characteristics of any imperfections, said Iain Christie, Neptec's director of research and development.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin pointed to the new technology in a statement on Wednesday announcing that the shuttles won't fly again until the foam-loss issue is corrected.

"As with any unexpected occurrence, we will closely and thoroughly evaluate this event and make any needed modifications to the shuttle before we launch again," Griffin said. "This is a test flight. Among the things we are testing are the integrity of the foam insulation and the performance of new camera equipment installed to detect problems. The cameras worked well. The foam did not."

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Todd R. Weiss

Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Aysha Strobbe

Microsoft Office 365/HP Spectre x360

Microsoft Office continues to make a student’s life that little bit easier by offering reliable, easy to use, time-saving functionality, while continuing to develop new features that further enhance what is already a formidable collection of applications

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill


I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?