The engineers who built the massive external fuel tank that will power the shuttle Discovery into orbit this spring used sophisticated X-ray detectors developed by UF researchers to reduce the chance of a defect in the foam insulation covering the tank. The detectors, first invented as a new technology to find land mines, can identify tiny gaps, or air-filled voids, in the insulating foam without causing any damage. It is believed that such a gap – possibly located between the foam and the tanks surface – caused a suitcase-sized piece of foam to break off during Columbias liftoff in January 2003. The chunk struck the edge of the shuttles left wing, seriously damaging it and spurring the shuttles destruction during re-entry on Feb. 1.
"We can do the inspection of the foam as it exists already sprayed onto the tank. We dont have to cut into it," said Warren Ussery, team leader for the return to flight nondestructive evaluation team at Lockheed Martins Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, where the shuttles external tanks are manufactured. "Were able to find critical voids with that (the UF detector)."
UF nuclear engineering professor Ed Dugan and retired UF nuclear engineering professor Alan Jacobs began experimenting with the modified "backscatter" X-ray detector several years ago as part of research aimed at engineering a more effective landmine detector. Conventional X-ray machines propel radiation through a target object to radiographic film on the other side. Different objects absorb X-rays to differing extents, so some show up more prominently on film than others. Backscatter X-ray machines were developed for circumstances when it is impossible to place film behind the object, as is the case with the shuttle tank. Contrasting conventional machines, they obtain images by capturing the radiation scattered "back" from the target.
Ed Dugan | EurekAlert!
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