HAMPTON, Va. -- Researchers at NASA's Langley Research Center have an added stake in this month's space shuttle mission. Not only are they part of the impact assessment and aerothermodynamic heating teams, one group will be watching Atlantis' return to earth, literally.
Space shuttle Atlantis' STS-125 crew is scheduled to launch Monday afternoon, May 11, and return May 22. It's rocketing to the Hubble Space Telescope to refurbish Hubble with state-of-the-art science instruments. After the astronauts' visit, the telescope's capabilities will be expanded and its lifetime extended through at least 2014.
To reach Hubble Atlantis will fly in an orbit that has a slightly higher risk of orbital debris strike than usual. That's of great interest to NASA Langley researchers, who participate on damage assessment and impact dynamics teams during shuttle missions. Those teams identify and evaluate if there's any risk to the shuttle if the orbiter's fragile tiles get hit from debris.
Another group from Langley is keeping an eye specifically on the heat of the shuttle's re-entry into earth's atmosphere. They're working to improve computer models and designs for future spacecraft and they're using the space shuttle as a flying testbed.
"The Hypersonic Thermodynamic Infrared Measurements team is interested in capturing a thermal image of the shuttle," said aerospace engineer and principal investigator Tom Horvath in the Aerothermodynamics Branch at Langley. "We plan to have a Navy aircraft fly below the shuttle during re-entry so that systems on board can remotely monitor and record heating to the shuttle's lower surface using a long-range infrared camera."
The US Navy NP-3D Orion aircraft and the long-range infrared optical system are called "Cast Glance" and are operated by the NAVAIR Weapons Division, Pt. Mugu, Calif. The team says it's quite a challenge to focus on an object flying 15 times the speed of a bullet from an airplane in flight. They do a lot of intricate pre-mission planning.
"You only have one shot. It's not like you can ask them to go around again and give us another try at it and so that's why the planning is so important," said Steve Tack, Cast Glance flight operations lead. "It's a really exciting time ... that 30-40 seconds when the shuttle is just screaming past us at Mach 15 and we're making a really hard turn to maintain tracking on it."
The NP-3D Orion, which can stay aloft for about 11 hours, stays over international waters until it's time for the shuttle to re-enter. At closest approach, the aircraft and its crew will be approximately 25-40 miles from the shuttle. Because the orbiter is banking on descent the plane will not be directly under it. Mission planners say the aircraft location and flight maneuvers proposed for the observation have been carefully planned to ensure safety to the orbiter and the respective crews.
A team from NASA Langley will be in mission control during re-entry to make recommendations to the flight crew regarding adjustments to the camera settings and aircraft position for optimal viewing. The data will be recorded and downloaded post-mission once the P-3 Orion returns back to its base of operations.
Cast Glance has a proven track record of acquiring high quality data during previous Space Shuttle missions. The crew of the Cast Glance aircraft successfully captured imagery of the orbiter during re-entry during three previous missions. After STS-119, in March, the team managed to shoot almost nine minutes of Discovery on descent.
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