Scanner ensures Shuttle safety, finds extraterrestrial potholes

Tue, 07/28/2009 - 8:13am

NASA Ames High-Speed 3D Scanner2009 R&D 100 Winner

Careful and accurate examination of the Space Shuttle’s thermal protection tiles, which dissipate the extreme levels of heat generated during descent through the Earth’s atmosphere, are a crucial necessity in ensuring the spacecraft’s safe operation. However, speeding up this time-consuming process would be helpful. The NASA High-Speed 3D Scanner developed at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., provides that speed by packaging a high-speed, lightweight 3-D laser scanner in a wireless, portable, teapot-sized device. The scanner generates highly accurate surface maps to detect minute imperfections in the shuttle’s heat shield, sending the resulting data to a laptop computer via standard wired Ethernet or wireless WiFi transmission. Unencumbered by cables, the compact instrument allows technicians to take scans up to 25 m or more away from the computer, an ability that has generated a whole new extraterrestrial use for the scanner. It can just as easily produce full schematics of meters of planetary terrain and other surfaces, including accurate representation of holes, craters, hills, and surface texture. A software analysis program running on the computer locates and identifies all the flaws or variations in the scanned area and displays their dimensions in table form. The software also updates a database of the surface being scanned with the latest flaw information.

3-D laser scanner

NASA Ames Research Center

Award Year



NASA (Ames Research Center)


Joseph Lavelle (Primary)
Robin Orans (Primary)
Stefan Schuet (Primary)



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