HAMPTON, Va., April 26, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The last mission of the space shuttle Endeavour will feature a new spacecraft docking technology, developed in part by NASA's Langley Research Center.
Endeavour's STS-134 mission is set to launch for the International Space Station around 3:45 p.m. Friday, April 29, and return 14 days later. The shuttle is delivering a particle physics detector, known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2, designed to measure cosmic rays to search for various types of unusual matter, such as dark matter and antimatter. It will help researchers study the formation of the universe. Endeavour also will deliver a platform that carries spare parts to sustain station operations after the shuttles are retired from service. The mission will feature the last four spacewalks by a shuttle crew.
The test-run of the state-of-the-art docking system, called the Sensor Test for Orion Relative Navigation Risk Mitigation or STORRM, will occur near the end of the mission. Its goal is to validate new sensor and laser technology that will make docking and undocking to the International Space Station (ISS) easier and safer for astronauts. The shuttle crew will undock from the ISS and then re-rendezvous, using the new technology. Langley engineers will be in Houston to monitor the experiment.
STORRM hardware includes a Vision Navigation System (VNS) and a high-resolution docking camera. The VNS is an eye-safe remote laser sensing system that provides an image of the target – in this case, the ISS – along with range and bearing data to precise accuracies. The docking camera is designed to provide high-resolution color images. Both these sensors will provide real-time three-dimensional images to the crew with a resolution 16 times higher than the current shuttle sensors.
Much like the technology that allows automobiles to parallel-park themselves without driver assistance, the VNS and docking camera would allow the spacecraft to "park" itself. This technology can also aid in hazard avoidance, allowing for safe approach and landing on asteroids and other planetary surfaces.
"Engineers from industry and NASA overcame significant schedule and technical challenges to make the STORRM project a reality," said Frank Novak, STORRM project manager from NASA Langley. "Langley designed a radiation tolerant data storage system in six months, capable of storing one terabyte of data."
During the mission NASA Langley researchers also participate on damage assessment and impact dynamics team. Those teams identify and evaluate if there's any risk to the shuttle if the orbiter's wing leading edges, nosecone and fragile tiles get hit from debris.
Another group from Langley, the Hypersonic Thermodynamic Infrared Measurements or HYTHIRM team, 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 thermal protection systems. The team has been successful in acquiring calibrated thermal "snapshots" of re-entry, ranging from Mach 8.5 to Mach 18, during six previous shuttle missions.
The team works with a Navy aircraft that flies under the shuttle so the crew can use a special infrared optical system to record Endeavour's heat signature during re-entry. The 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.
At closest approach, the aircraft 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 have been carefully calculated to ensure safety to the shuttle and the respective crews.
A team from NASA Langley will be in mission control during re-entry to collect the most up-to-date shuttle re-entry information and make recommendations to the P-3 flight crew so it can make adjustments to the camera settings and aircraft position for the best viewing. The data will be recorded and downloaded after the P-3 Orion returns to its base of operations.
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