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Sun, Aug 07, 2005

From Tanks to Tanks

Army Tank Research Applied To Shuttle... Tank

You couldn't make this stuff up. On July 27th, not quite in time for the shuttle launch, the Army (of all organizations) successfully tested a newly developed system that detects even the most minute development of ice on Space Shuttle main tanks.

Ice formation is caused by the very low temperatures of the oxidant (-320F) and fuel (-400F) in the tank. The added weight of the ice on the spray-on foam insulation is believed to contribute to the separation of foam tiles that caused the loss of the Columbia orbiter.

A similar incident of foam separation is blamed for damage to Discovery, now circulating in orbit while scientists and engineers study risks, failure modes, and determine how best to effect repairs in space.

A major cause of the casualty to Columbia, and the damage to Discovery, is the change from a previous, safer type of foam. This change was mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency because of Chlorfluorocarbons (CFCs) in the old foam, which the agency considers a greater environmental hazard than falling shuttle parts and pieces.

The organization which managed development of the system was the US Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, normally acronymized as TARDEC, which is dangerously close to Dr. Who's TARDIS now that they are monkeying with space applications. We're not sure that the big one on the Shuttle was the tank that they had in mind when they established the center, but help is where you find it.

The system was developed by contractor MacDonald Dettwiler Space and Advanced Robotics, Ltd, often called MD Robotics. It works using an infrared optic on the shuttle tank and then computer-analyzing the acquired data. The optical unit currently fits into several rugged boxes on a hand cart (illustration). It can measure the thickness of ice less than 1/16". Those interested in more technical details can see them here.

If this equipment can be further reduced in size and weight, it might have aeronautical applications as well. Accurate information on ice formation might not only keep individual aircraft safer, but also would contribute to improved meteorological understanding of ice formation and increase the accuracy of icing forecasts.

TARDEC has been responsible for some excellent results (for example, the body armor that has saved so many lives in the war) and has shown a penchant for unconventional approaches -- such as contacting NASCAR crew chiefs and mechanics for HMMWV tuning and modification tips.

FMI: www.tacom.army.mil/tardec/

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