Design Engineering

Damage Control

By Design Engineering staff   

General prototyping rapid manufacturing space exploration

Canadian-designed laser scanner and 3D printer help NASA assess shuttle damage

On Aug. 13, 2007, just after lift off, the space shuttle Endeavour’s Thermal Protection System (TPS) suffered damage due to falling foam from the fuel tank. Sensors detected damage to the heat-resistant tiles lining the orbiter’s underbelly, posing a threat to the shuttle’s safe reentry to Earth.

NASA called on Kanata, Ont.-based Neptec Design Group, a prime contractor to NASA since 1995, to collect three-dimensional information and evaluate the severity of the situation. Originally designed as a 3D front-end sensor for the company’s Space Vision System, the Laser Camera System (LCS) is a 3D autosynchronized laser scanner that can either raster scan objects and capture reflections from their surface features or determine the position of discrete target points on an object. Developed specifically for such situations, the LCS is a permanent part of NASA’s 50-foot inspection boom, used by the Canadarm, which flies on every space shuttle mission.

Using the LCS, Neptec collected detailed 3D images of locations where sensors detected possible damage to the shuttle’s outer surface. Using a Dimension 3D printer, Neptec was able to use the 3D information from the LCS to print a 3D model of the damage aboard the Endeavour. The model provided visual representation of the tiles and was used to evaluate the damage to the shuttle’s TPS.

The 3D model of the damage to the tiles helped NASA mission managers assess the extent of the breakage. Although the gouge was deep, managers believed it posed no risk to the shuttle’s reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.


On Aug. 21, Endeavour and its seven-astronaut crew returned safely to Earth, having completed a 5.3-million-mile, 13-day flight for the orbiter. On the mission, the crew performed four spacewalks and primed the station for the delivery of its fourth and final set of U.S. solar arrays on a future shuttle flight.

“Due to the extreme nature of the environment, every space mission presents an elevated level of risk,” said Maureen Campbell, marketing and communications manager for Neptec. “By providing accurate, three-dimensional information and clearly communicating the extent of the damage, NASA was able to make a better educated decision, which, in turn, brought the Endeavour crew home safely.”


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