View Full Version : Would a spy telescope been able to see the shuttle damage?

2003-Apr-19, 11:12 PM
There's been a lot of finger-pointing over the fact that engineers in NASA wanted to use a spy telescope to look at Columbia for damage, and the request was abandoned after the Boeing assesment of the likely damage. There seems to be an assumption that a spy telescope inspection would have turned up evidence of severe damage while the shuttle was still in orbit, allowing something to be done to try and save the shuttle crew. And the preliminary recommendadtions from the review board call for spy telescope inspections of shuttles in orbit to become standard practice.

However, the latest theories on the shuttle breakup are that the damage was not to any major part of the thermal protection system like the tiles or RCC panels, but a broken off piece of the T-seal on the leading edge. This would have no large holes, just a gap maybe an inch wide between two of the RCC panels. Would that kid of damage even have been visible to anything other than a close-up visual inspection by an astronaut? I'm picturing a "what-if" situation here, where they did have the shuttle inspected by a spy sattalite, and declared it safe because no holes or gaps large enough to be visible at distance were seen, only to have the shuttle break up on re-entry because of a long, narrow gap in the leading edge.

Anyone know for sure just how much detail it would be possible see when examinen the shuttle remotely? Would it be possible to see the gap from a missing T-seal strip?

2003-Apr-21, 02:34 AM
Simple answer: No.

2003-Apr-21, 01:11 PM
Followup - if they had seen it, would it have mattered? Answer: No.

Kaptain K
2003-Apr-22, 02:50 PM
As to the capabilities of spy satelites, one problem is that they are, well, classified. Those who know aren't saying. Anybody else is just guessing.

2003-Apr-22, 03:33 PM
The simple answer is correct.

First, there's the problem of getting one of them and pointing it at the appropriate place. This is not as easy as you'd think, and they have somewhat limited maneuvering capability.

Second, they're not designed for an industrial investigation. They can image large shapes at a distance. But they can't (for instance) see the time display on a digital watch... and that's the sort of resolution you'd need (better, actually) to find the damage.

And third, they would have to be at the right angle to the damage. This means flipping the shuttle all around to check it out, which wastes fuel and is a pain in the neck and would/could move the object out of satellite range, requiring the satellite to be realigned again and so forth.

2003-Apr-22, 04:38 PM
This is only what is released, though. Who knows what they can actually photograph.



2003-Apr-24, 03:37 AM
On one hand, if the NASA boys considered asking for NRO assistance, it must be possible, and the KH series of optical sats do occupy a higher altitude than the STS and ISS (and so could look "down" on them). However, to add to BYRD'S comments: about the best resolution going is 10cm and that's a big enough hole to not be able to distinguish. There is also the question of whether those sats would be able to focus on something that much closer and with possibly much different relative velocity. Then there's the lighting issue: the angle between the sat, the shuttle and the light source (moon, earth, or sun). Man, you're counting on a whole lot of happy coincidences. A previous post questioned whether being able to ascertain any damage would matter anyway. I was thinking that the ISS could be used as a temporary refuge to wait for a rescue Soyuz, but then remembered that the shuttle uses a lower inclination orbit when not on ISS-related missions, which STS-107 wasn't. For those flights though, that might be a possibility. Cheers.