'That Looks Like Trouble....'

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It’s been a good long while since the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in mid-air a few minutes after launch on January 28, 1986, killing all the astronauts (and one schoolteacher) aboard. Now some new homemade footage of the crash has surfaced, taken by a man named Jack Moss as he watched the shuttle flight from his street in Winter Gardens, Florida. You can hear him say “That looks like trouble” when the telltale Y-shaped plume forms. The Huffington Post reports:

Forty seconds into the video, the space shuttle is seen appearing over the top of the trees. Moss is heard stating, “That’s brighter than usual.” At fifty four seconds into the tape, the vapor stream from the shuttle suddenly splits in two. Moss’s video is thought to be the only amateur footage of the launch as video cameras were still rare. Shortly before he died this past December, Moss donated the footage to the Space Exploration Archive in Louisville, Kentucky.

Now we know that The Challenger space shuttle exploded 73 seconds after take off due to a failed O-ring seal on its right solid rocket booster — a failure that was due to the freezing conditions the morning of the launch, as physicist Richard Feynman so ably demonstrated during the Congressional hearings into the disaster. Even in retrospect, there was little anyone could do once the shuttle took off.

But what about a scenario like the Columbia disaster in 2003, almost 20 years after Challenger? In that case, debris damaged the shuttle during takeoff and while the shuttle didn’t explode then, it broke up during re-entry because of the damage sustained at the start of the mission. Is there any good way for NASA scientists to assess the likely damage of such an event prior to re-entry?

Philip Metzger of the Kennedy Space Center and some of his colleagues think they might have just the thing: a system that analyzes the trajectory patterns of debris as it scatters after such an incident to determine mass, density and trace the origin. Their design includes a pair of high-resolution cameras taking footage from different angles, which can then be combined to yield a 3D view of the launch. This in turn allows a computer to reconstruct the trajectory of any errant bits of debris that fly off during launch.

Metzger & Co. tested their method during the shuttle launch of May 2008, when a piece of debris was observed striking the shuttle during launch. The fear was that it was a piece of brick from the shuttle’s flame trench — something that could do serious damage. Metzger’s analysis, however, revealed that the density was too low for the debris to be brick. It was foam, most likely from the solid rocket booster, and as everyone found out upon re-entry, it did not damage the shuttle.

That’s a terrific proof of principle, but the method didn’t yield the analysis until nearly a year after the mission ended. For this to be truly useful, there needs to be a filtering mechanisms capable of sifting through the huge amount of raw data collected from the dual cameras to find the bits of particular interest.  And it just so happens that particle physicists have a handy filtering system they use to comb through the massive amounts of subatomic debris resulting from particle collisions in large accelerators — with the most cutting-edge version found at the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC has roughly a billion collisions per second, so the detectors are equipped with built-in filtering systems that throws out most of the data and only keeps particular signatures (particle trajectories) it deems of interest.

It’s an intriguing notion, and if it saves the lives of future astronauts — even beyond the space shuttle, which is due to retire later this year — kudos to Metzger and his pals. It comes too late for the Challenger and Columbia crews, alas. But space enthusiasts still remember them. In fact, last summer, Carl Zimmer made a moving addition to his fascinating Science Tattoo Emporium: Mark Yturralde’s tattooed list of all the names of the Challenger astronauts who lost their lives in 1986. “It just struck me. I’ll put their names on my forearm,” he told Carl. “People will see them. They’ll ask who they are. I can then tell them about my tattoo, and what it means to me. Every time someone asks, and I explain it, they take a second. They reflect. They remember.”