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NASA wireless scanners inspect shuttle heat tiles

Space agency uses wireless scanners to automatically detect imperfections in thousands of heat tiles protecting a space shuttle.

In a move to replace manual inspection, NASA has built wireless scanners to automatically detect cracks or imperfections in the thousands of heat tiles that protect the space shuttle.

Wireless scanner
Wireless scanner helps NASA detect flaws in shuttle heat tiles. NASA Ames Research Center

The space agency said on Tuesday that it will use the wireless scanners for its first mission Wednesday, when Endeavour launches from the Kennedy Space Center.

Thermal heat shields are critical to space flight. The space shuttle Columbia, for example, exploded during re-entry into the atmosphere in February 2003, when a hole in its outer surface caused the craft to break apart under extreme temperatures.

In the past, NASA said its employees would visually analyze tiles and estimate damage from dings or cracks to "worst-case value" by using small handheld scales. But now, inspectors will use six scanners, which weigh about 2.9 pounds each and are about the size of a small teapot, to analyze the tiles for potential problems. The scanners are set to computerize data on tiles within 3 seconds, and then engineers can examine the length, depth and width of tile flaws through 3D pictures.

"The new method is much faster and more accurate because the depth and volume measurements of the flaws and their locations are wirelessly transmitted into a computer database," Joe Lavelle, a senior engineer and project manager at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., said in a statement.

NASA, which has been testing a larger desktop version of the scanner to study protective materials for its next-generation space shuttle, Orion, is building a second desktop scanner for use at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. NASA said the technology should be finished in about two months.