Could Canadian technology offered to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 2001 have prevented the incineration of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003?
The question is academic today. Investigators have blamed NASA's culture and "conflicting goals of cost, schedule and safety" as a key cause of the tragedy. But Neptec Design Group, a privately held Ottawa company, says it unsuccessfully tried to sell NASA a cutting-edge space vision camera as a safety feature before the accident.
That device, called the laser camera system (LCS), will now be on board when the shuttle program returns to space as early as next month with the launch of the Discovery. The LCS is designed to inspect the exterior of the shuttle for damage sustained during flight, and it fulfills one of several mandates handed down by investigators as a condition of return to flight.
"We had not, prior to the accident, been able to sell NASA on the idea," said Iain Christie, Neptec's vice-president of research and development. "The world became a completely different place after the accident."
Less than two minutes into Columbia's launch on Jan. 16, 2003, a piece of foam insulation weighing less than a kilogram broke off from the fuel tank and struck the orbiter's wing. NASA engineers requested satellite photos of any possible damage, but the pictures were never taken.
When Columbia re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, superheated air penetrated a manhole-sized breach in the wing. It took just 24 seconds for the craft to break apart at an altitude of 43,000 metres.
Neptec's invention will work hand in hand with two other pieces of Canadian technology aboard the shuttle: the 15-metre robotic Canadarm and an extension arm built by MD Robotics of Brampton, Ont. The extension arm is necessary to get the LCS out to the edges of the wings and under the shuttle's belly.
The LCS will be part of a three-camera system.
Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico has created an infrared laser device, and there's a black-and-white TV camera that NASA has used on previous missions.
Neptec engineers faced major technical challenges building the LCS. Temperatures vary by about 80 C between sunrise and sunset on the shuttle's exterior, and the spaceship encounters 18 dawns every 24 hours. That level of temperature variation puts tremendous stress on regular materials. So, Neptec constructed the LCS out of a composite that doesn't change shape as it changes temperature.
The engineers also developed a system to protect the high-precision optical equipment during all the shake, rattle and roll that comes with one million pounds of thrust delivered at liftoff.
Neptec's technology addresses the challenge of accurately measuring the position of objects that are always moving. The LCS uses a computer to calculate movement relative to a fixed background of black and white dots applied to objects. Mr. Christie describes the device as "intelligence in three dimensions."
An earlier version of Neptec's vision system flew on 25 previous shuttle missions -- it was designed to help assemble the space station but not to do external checks of the shuttle. The company grew out of a space vision system project at the National Research Council of Canada 15 years ago. Today, Neptec employs 105 people, and plans to hire 55 more by next year. Revenue for the year should hit $20-million and the company has been profitable since inception, Mr. Christie said.
Working with NASA is both challenging and rewarding, he says. But the agency also pays contractors very well because it wants them to be around to help in the future. Mr. Christie credits the Canadian Space Agency for helping the company develop the LCS.
Neptec hopes the contract with NASA will help it move into other areas, such as national defence.