High-resolution surveillance of Space Shuttle launches using specially equipped aircraft as recommended by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) will not be considered a critical return to flight issue, says NASA.

"It's nice to have, but it is not a showstopper," says Rodney Grubbs, who heads a six-member team at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

One of the CAIB recommendations was that NASA upgrade its imaging systems to provide a minimum of three useful views of the Space Shuttle from launch to at least T+180s. "No Shuttle is going to remain on the ground if the cameras aren't ready," says Grubbs.

One ground-based film camera failed during the fateful launch of STS 107 Columbia on 16 January 2003 when the orbiter was struck by a piece of foam from the external tank that hit the leading edge of the orbiter's wing.

The area was breached by re-entry plasma resulting in the loss of the vehicle and its seven crew on 1 February. A back-up system provided low-quality video coverage.

The Marshall Space Flight Center is developing a $4 million package of imaging sensors that, if ready, will track the next Space Shuttle STS 114 Discovery from lift-off to about 3min into the ascent, no earlier than March 2005.

The sensors will be flown aboard two NASA high-altitude weather research aircraft, based on the Martin WB-57 bomber. These will be equipped with the Ascent Video Experiment (AVE), covering both sides of the Shuttle.

A special pod is being developed to include a high-definition camera, a wide-angle camera and an infrared sensor to take high- definition images from a distance of 22.5km (14 miles) and to an altitude of 60,000ft (18,300m).



Source: Flight International