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Space Science

Space Shuttle to be Outfitted with New Sensors 166

Norman at Davis writes " is reporting on new "sensors designed to pinpoint potential damage from falling debris or other objects [which] will be installed into the wings of NASA's remaining shuttle fleet...." Unfortunately, the sensors won't be too sophisticated, MSNBC reports that 'the extent of damage would still have to be determined by an inspection by astronauts in orbit, using an extension boom equipped with cameras and lasers.' Apparently NASA is in the process of developing three techniques which will allow astronauts to spacewalk and repair holes up to fourteen inches in diameter. Finally... the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is also running an article on the topic, stating that "not only will computers provide state-of-the-art imaging, but Defence Department satellites will supplement inspections made by the shuttle astronauts themselves and photographs taken from the International Space Station." 'NASA's efforts to improve its ability to detect whether the shuttle has been struck during flight have evolved remarkably since Columbia's January launch, when engineers watched loops of film sent to Miami for development and projected against a wall by a noisy old projector.' Hopefully this new technology will prevent another Columbia-like disaster, as a space shuttle replacement is looking less likely by the day."
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Space Shuttle to be Outfitted with New Sensors

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  • It's a bandaid (Score:5, Insightful)

    by signe ( 64498 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:02AM (#7700054) Homepage

    Yep, this certainly should prevent another Columbia-type disaster. Just like additional checks on the rings and seals should prevent another Challenger-type disaster. Of course, next time it will probably be metal fatigue, and this won't do anything to help.

    It's a patch, and it's reactionary. The shuttles are old. They are general purpose vehicles that have been overworked, and should have been replaced. They still should be. And every time there's a hole in the dam, they slap a patch on it and say "Well, that hole's not going to leak again." Meanwhile, the entire dam is about to crumble to dust.

  • Revolutionary (Score:5, Insightful)

    by philipx ( 521085 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:05AM (#7700074) Homepage
    Pretty much everybody that is into space stuff could tell you that (space debris) collisions are the #1 unfixable problem that could happen to almost any craft out there.
    While most of the systems are redundant (although the recent Japanesse problems have shown and redundancy is not all), the outer shell is obviously not, therefore any damage to it is *HUGE* oooops.

    Take some problems:
    Fire on board - you can control (if nothing you can vacuum the chamber).
    Power failure - almost all of them have redundant power systems, enough to allow repair to the primary one.
    Life systems failure - autonomous suits.
    Computer/Electrical failures - switch to one of the 2 (or 4 in newer shuttle models) redundant system.

    Advances in in-flight repairs might bring us the good oxygen mouth needed till we manage to come up with better, stronger, cheaper alloys.
    (However, one question begs: where are the energy shields? :))
  • Interesting News (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ChuckDivine ( 221595 ) * <> on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:09AM (#7700114) Homepage

    Glad to see work is progressing with regard to on orbit repair. That's a capability which will benefit all kinds of future activity in space.

    I don't know, though, about a shuttle replacement becoming less likely though. NASA might not come up with a replacement (think National Aerospace Plane, X-33) but teams now competing for the X Prize [] could very well produce an orbital vehicle down the line.

    If a small group can win the X Prize, it will show a better way to pursue space engineering than NASA's dysfunctional bureaucracy. Such a win will lead people to start investing real money in new space technology. It's already known that if we can reduce the cost to orbit from $10K/pound ($20K/kilo) to around $1K/pound ($2K/kilo) lots of opportunities will arise for space based activity. Get that price down to $10/pound (if possible) and you see people like me taking off for orbit to do things like create art []. At that lower price we might even see zero gravity dance like that envisioned by Spider and Jeanne Robinson []. The possibilities are truly endless.

  • by wiredog ( 43288 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:14AM (#7700145) Journal
    IIRC, during the Challenger hearings it turned out that there were something like 1,00 criticality one systems. Systems with no backup from which a failure could lead to loss of an orbiter. Not just major criticality one areas like, say, a wing falling off or heat shield components, but o-rings, electrical systems, etc. I wonder how many criticality one systems are left?

    The failure of Columbia, as with Challenger, was one of process, i.e. beaurocracy, as much as a mechanical one. "Take off your engineer hats, and put on your manager hats." "We don't really need to have the Air Force look at it with a KH-11." Etc.

    Saw both of them on TV. Live. Saw the first launch of Columbia, skipped school that day (9th grade) to watch.

  • Re:Spacewalk? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dashing Leech ( 688077 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:15AM (#7700149)
    Is it so difficult to just do a spacewalk and a visual inspection?

    Yes, yes it is. It's very expensive and dangerous, and they have to cover the entire underside of the shuttle, the leading edge of both wings, and the nose. It's hard enough getting cameras and 3D sensors to all those areas. Getting an EVA there would be very difficult.

  • by angusr ( 718699 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:15AM (#7700159)
    The chances of there being a replacement that is reusable appear to be lessening, true.

    Currently the US does not have a non-resuable space capsule available at all. Non-reusuable means that for every flight a new vehicle must be built from scratch; this might seem a bad thing, but it means that a) new design features can be added all the time, b) the components are all "new" so fatigue and wear are less of an issue and c) the production lines are in constant use.

    The latter is vital. It's now pretty much impossible for a new shuttle to be built as the tools, production techniques and knowledge to build them were all lost or destroyed years ago. Endeavour, built to replace Challenger, was constructed from spare parts that were already fabricated at the time. The contract to build it was awarded in 1987, but construction on the crew module started in 1982 (as a spare module). If a single use capsule had been in use (in addition to the Shuttle or not) then the tooling, production data and knowledge would still be current.

    Russia has the Soyuz capsule, which has been constantly upgraded over the decades the design has been in use. China now has Shenzou, which is Soyuz based (although it appears that there may be some quite radical differences under the hood). The only non-Shuttle design that the US has that is close to being ready-to-build is the Apollo CSM (or Mercury or Gemini, of course).

    In some ways concentrating on the Shuttle at the expense of other designs of spacecraft has lead to the situation that NASA now finds itself in - and, to a large extent, the fault can be laid at the doors of those who control their pursestrings.

  • Re:It's a bandaid (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kippy ( 416183 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:16AM (#7700167)
    The shuttles are old. They are general purpose vehicles that have been overworked, and should have been replaced.

    Replaced with what? If your answer is more resuable shuttles, you should really ask yourself why. What has the shuttle program gotten us but dead astronauts, a few satilites and vital data on ants sorting tiny scrwes in space?

    NASA needs a target not a veachle. Once it has a place to go, it should then design a means to get there. Lower Earth orbit is esentially nowhere. Let's hear it for Mars or at least the Moon.
  • by Hiigara ( 649950 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:25AM (#7700230)
    I'm a diehard supporter of manned spaceflight, however even I have to acknowledge the fact the space shuttle is like your old Pontiac 1991 that broke down every other week. It's old, it's outdated, and it serves no purpose. The only real advantage of the shuttle is it's payload capabilities, which haven't be used very well in the last couple of years. We'd be better off using capsules to ferry astronauts back and forth from the ISS, which is another big failure. What's the point of doing the same thing over and over? Most of the experiments being conducted in low earth orbit are jokes. Baby steps are great for dangerous activities, but a leap is what's needed to keep us in the game. Real scientific revolution.

    While NASA's technology continues to improve beyond even my expectations for a under funded, it's dream, it's vision continues to splinter and die. This is just another example of that, being able to successful inspect and repair for damage in space is important for bigger and better things that might come in the future, it's being used to keep an aging useless shuttle fleet going, sucking up money and basically behaving like a cancerous growth.


    Best thing NASA could do right now IMHO, scrap the shuttles, redesign the ISS and boost it to the Legrange (Spelling?) point. Use it as a construction yard for the Mission to Mars. One problem is solved already, food for the space station. Once the Chinese build a moon base they'll have a steady diet of Chinese takeout.
  • Re:It's a bandaid (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Sergeant Beavis ( 558225 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:32AM (#7700285) Homepage
    We don't need to spend a fortune on a new HLV like the Saturn V. We could just go with a somewhat reusable Shuttle C (which is being looked into again) and have a huge launch capacity. I was all for a winged OSP until I started reading such great articles on capsules in and other websites. You can still have a ground landing, reusable capsule that will reduce the cost of just getting people into orbit. Beyond that, a previous poster is absolutely correct. We need a destination. We need to stop just going in circles in LEO. The Moon is there, we just have to go (and of course spend the money).
  • Re:It's a bandaid (Score:4, Insightful)

    by CompressedAir ( 682597 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @10:37AM (#7700318)
    Neither shuttle accident was caused by maintenence failure, as you suggest. The first was caused by known safety issues that were disregarded by management, and the second was caused by an accident.

    Implying that the shuttles are going to "crumble into dust" without anyone noticing is preposterous. The shuttles are the best maintained flight vehicles in the history of the world.
  • by ckaminski ( 82854 ) <slashdot-nospam@ ... m minus physicis> on Friday December 12, 2003 @12:22PM (#7701640) Homepage
    You're joking, right? The big computer that's screaming "IMPACT SENSOR 1028 FAILURE" over and over and over wouldn't give you a good place to start looking?
  • Re:It's a bandaid (Score:5, Insightful)

    by njchick ( 611256 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @12:38PM (#7701857) Journal
    But please note that neither Challenger nor Columbia disaster were in any way caused by the shuttles being reusable. The SRBs are reusable, but the O-rings failed because they were operated below certain temperature, not because they were old. The fuel tank and its foam are not reusable. The same piece of foam would break the RCC panels even if they were absolutely new.

    Shuttles are not failing because they are old or too complex. They are failing because known risks are ignored. Switching to expendable launchers won't fix it.

  • by xA40D ( 180522 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @01:48PM (#7702785) Homepage
    Correct me if I'm wrong but didn't both shuttle disasters have more to do with a breakdown in management and communication than a lack of monitoring?

    Still shiny new sensors will give everyone a warm fuzzy feeling, which is obviously all that matters.
  • by Particle010 ( 520521 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @01:57PM (#7702906)

    There's a lot of ways I guess they could inspect the shuttle for damage, but these sensors are really not going to cover the entire ship which, if they're going to do this, is what's needed. Of course, covering the entire ship is too expensive and can make sensor replacement a real pain, so why not with all the technology we have already don't we develop little pods that can deploy and do a fly-by of the ship once it's in orbit? Ever see those little jet propelled balls that were developed for space? They're really neato. They kinda look like that training ball in Star Wars. Anyhow, why not outfit them with cameras and use, say 4-8 of them on a "relative coordinate system" to the shuttle and make them do a fly-by visual? The video could be analyzed on the shuttle and on the ground. That seems like a darn good idea to me, plus they could be used in many many other ways as well like deploy them to inspect the ISS or a satelite. This would make spacewalks unnecessary until something had to be done.

    Sound like a good idea anyone?

  • Re:It's a bandaid (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Billly Gates ( 198444 ) on Friday December 12, 2003 @08:18PM (#7707334) Journal
    Inaccurate analogy.

    Age was looked at during the Columbian investigation. They are just as strong if not stronger then they were 20 years ago. Infact they are both lighter and stronger.

    Unlike a car, the Thrust is not really driven as much by moving parts. All the moving parts are replaced regularly. Very few if any of the original shuttle is still left in the current ones. Lots of things are replaced and the skeletal structure is fairly rust and corrosive proof. If not then its replaced. Plain and simple.

    I read more comments farther down from here about using space capsules again. I think that is dumb and silly because they are more expensive and error prone. Look at apollo 13 as an example of what a defect can do. If you redesign the space module each time you send it up, you increase the risk of something going wrong by introducing another possible defect.

    All the bugs in the shuttle have long been replaced. It was switching booster insulators is what caused Columbia's demise. If they used the old non environmental foam, the problem never would of happened.

    We need a consistant and reliable method to get astronaughts into space. The resuable shuttle program is the best one.

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