NASA has loaned pieces debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia to The Aerospace Corporation for research on the effects of re-entry.
The space agency has dispatched pieces of the graphite/epoxy honeycomb skins from orbital manoeuvring system, main propulsion tanks, reaction control systems and reactant distribution systems to the California-based organisation.
Scientists there which will study how composite materials, in particular, are affected by a journey through the atmosphere. The data will strengthen models that predict the behaviour of composite structures under stress. This will help to assess the risk re-entry poses to people and structures on the ground.
Mike Leinbach, shuttle launch director, said that he thought of studying pieces of Columbia soon after the February 2003 disaster in which seven astronauts died. A seal on the left wing was damaged during the launch and later fell off. This created a gap that let hot gas enter the ship during re-entry.
"It was clear to me we could learn a lot from it, and that we shouldn't bury the debris as we did with Challenger's," he said, adding that he hopes the technical community will put the findings of the research to good use in designing the next generation of space flight vehicles.
In the past, it was not possible to study a piece from an orbiter without taking the part out of service. NASA says that this way Columbia's legacy will continue.
Families of the astronauts aboard Columbia on its last mission were notified before the materials were released. ®