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Scientists Work on Shuttle Wing Sensors

April 12, 2005

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories are helping NASA ensure the safety of the space shuttle Discovery. The scientists are preparing a new network of sensors embedded in the shuttle’s wing. They will detect anything the strikes the wing and let astronauts know the severity of the damage, said Sandia engineer Ken Gwinn.

“If they detect a significant hit they could take safe haven at the International Space Station and figure out what to do and how to fix the damage,” Gwinn said.

If astronauts on the space shuttle Columbia had known that a piece of foam had damaged their wing, they might have been able to prevent the re-entry explosion that killed the entire crew on Feb. 1, 2003, Gwinn said.

After that crash, Sandia developed computer models and structural analyses to help determine the cause. Now officials are using those models to make other shuttles safer.

“These sensors and the information we get from them will give everyone a much better understanding of what’s happening with the whole system,” Gwinn said. “I think this is a big advance in their safety and knowledge of what’s going on.”

Each of the Discovery’s wings has 88 sensors embedded under its tiles.

NASA has also added a network of cameras and improved the tiles and foam so nothing that big can break off again, Gwinn said.

Sandia is working on a bigger plan to create software that ties all the vibration sensors into a network that will tell astronauts and NASA agents on the ground if something is amiss.

Models have taken about a year and a half to develop. Scientists have run hundreds of calculations to calibrate the new sensor network.

“The final thing we’ll give them is a software package that lets NASA put in all the conditions of what they think the material was that hit and where,” said Sandia scientist David Crawford. “They can then take that and superimpose it on a model of the shuttle to see what happened.”

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