NASA Probes Shuttle Debris After Launch

In uneasy reminders of the Columbia accident, a thermal tile (search) apparently got chipped and other debris whirled around Discovery as it rumbled toward space Tuesday, but it wasn't clear if the shuttle's sensitive skin had been jeopardized.

A 1 1/2-inch-wide bit of tile captured on camera appeared to fly off the shuttle's belly, on the edge of a door that encloses the nose landing gear. It was not clear if the tile had been struck by anything. Pieces of tile, which protect the shuttle from searing heat on return to Earth, have been lost on past flights without preventing a safe homecoming.

"We're going frame-by-frame through the imagery," said John Shannon, a NASA (search) operations manager.

Also, NASA video revealed what appeared to be a sizable piece of material — maybe a chunk of insulation — coming off the shuttle's external fuel tank two minutes into flight. It did not strike the orbiter that carries the seven astronauts, the NASA manager said. Other agency footage showed covers flying off Discovery's thrusters — something expected to happen.

NASA managers said they would take several days to make a full judgment of any damage to the shuttle and decide how to deal with it.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is seeing more of the impact of launch on the shuttle than ever before, thanks to its most elaborate array of cameras and other imaging in history. "I fully expected we would see things that we hadn't seen in the past," said Shannon.

NASA trained more than 110 cameras on Discovery as it rumbled toward orbit. That's roughly 30 more than during the last shuttle launch — Columbia's 2003 mission that killed all seven astronauts and grounded the fleet until now.

The new cameras are meant to provide better views of damage to the shuttle's exterior from falling insulation, ice created by supercold fuel, or other materials. "Along with cameras on the ground, and in and on the shuttle itself, this imaging system will provide an unprecedented look at shuttle liftoff and atmospheric flight," said Bob Page, who is supervising NASA's camera team.

NASA wants to avoid a repeat of the Columbia mission, when a slab of insulating foam gashed its wing as it hurtled toward orbit. Mission ground crew suspected the strike, but blurry images made it hard to judge damage, investigators said.

For this launch, cameras were posted at new sites to track Discovery's launch from three angles. NASA set up new high-definition digital video cameras that can load images into the computer at the Kennedy Space Center (search) launch site within 15 minutes of liftoff.

A camera on Discovery's giant external fuel tank also gave an unprecedented look at the shuttle's whole ascent. The astronauts then took digital pictures as the jettisoned tank tumbled back toward Earth.

In an experiment, two weather planes with crew in pressurized suits — for flight above 50,000 feet — shadowed the shuttle 20 miles away and captured high-altitude digital images through a telescope.

"It's a real expensive video game trying to keep the shuttle ... in the field of view," said crewman Brian Barnett.

Almost 90 impact sensors on the shuttle's wings, as well as radar, were arrayed to back up the pictures taken during liftoff.

Spy satellites were to photograph the shuttle later in the mission. The crew of the international space station will take pictures of the shuttle tiles when the craft approaches later in the week.

About 100 analysts at Kennedy, Johnson and Marshall space centers have been assigned to study the shuttle pictures and help decide if it was seriously damaged by any debris.

While the high-definition video can be viewed quickly, analysts must wait about a day for the first delivery of film, which gives the sharpest pictures.

NASA did not expect to eliminate all debris from shuttle liftoffs, despite its safety improvements. If dangerous damage has occurred, the astronauts can take temporary refuge inside the space station, and another shuttle crew could be sent up on a rescue mission.