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
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
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