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updated 8/12/2004 10:29:22 PM ET 2004-08-13T02:29:22

A video camera on the space shuttle Discovery’s external fuel tank will record the launch planned for spring 2005, including any flyaway foam of the sort that led to last year’s Columbia disaster.

The camera, to be placed in a recessed spot toward the top of the fuel tank, will transmit live footage for about 15 minutes after launch, Neil Otte, chief engineer on Lockheed Martin’s external tank project, said Thursday. A group of NASA officials will review the images and determine how much insulating foam flew off the tank.

“They will categorize any anomalous issues that we have,” Otte said.

An investigation into the Columbia disaster determined a briefcase-sized chunk of foam flew off the external tank during liftoff and struck the shuttle’s left wing, creating a hole. Hot gases burned through the hole when the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere, causing the spacecraft to break apart over Texas and leading to the deaths of all seven astronauts.

The findings led to an overhaul of the way workers apply the foam to the tanks and to heightened inspection systems at the New Orleans plant where the tanks are put together. Engineers still expect small pieces of the foam to fly off after launch, but they should be harmless, many about the size of popcorn kernels, Otte said.

Next year’s launch, planned for March or April, will be the first since the Columbia disaster on Feb. 1, 2003.

The only other shuttle with a camera on the external tank was used on the 2002 Atlantis mission. That camera’s lens was obscured by exhaust particles when the external tank was jettisoned minutes after launch.

The camera on next year’s mission will be positioned on the opposite side of the tank, away from the shuttle, Otte said, so the vessel’s exhaust will not smear the lens when the tank detaches.

The external tank supplies fuel to the shuttle engines for liftoff. It detaches about eight minutes after launch and disintegrates when it re-enters the atmosphere.

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