Watching for disaster

NASA Imaging Team Develops ‘Eye In Sky’ For Shuttle Chase Planes

Space Daily has a good story on the new imaging equipment developed for the WB-57 chase planes NASA uses to cover shuttle launches.

The jets will carry innovative, on-board video imaging systems, dubbed the WB-57 Ascent Video Experiment (WAVE).

The system will capture detailed images of how the Space Shuttle behaves, as it climbs toward orbit.

During the launch, the jets will keep pace with Discovery, flying at a distance of 15 to 20 miles.

The WAVE systems will track the Shuttle for approximately 150 seconds, from liftoff to separation of the Solid Rocket Boosters, the power systems that provide the main thrust to lift Discovery off the pad.


NASA video technicians built and tested the high-definition imaging system earlier this year.

They called in optics specialists from Marshall’s Space Optics Manufacturing Technology Center to design the camera lens and split the video feed, enabling it to simultaneously record the Shuttle in visible light and infrared.

MO previously covered some of the new ground cameras with 10,000mm lenses that will also be tracking the launch.

The WB-57 chase planes are converted B-57 Canberra bombers. The two flying for NASA are the last two operational B-57s in the world.


  1. Possibly a cheaper version of the COBRA BALL system already in deployment? The Cobra Ball was not used to track our shuttle, but it has a long service career of tracking soviet and possibly other rogue nation missile launches. I have not heard that this system has been retired yet and has indeed been upgraded over time, as new technology has appeared.

  2. Note that RB-57s were used for high-altitude recon, and WB-57s for high-altitude weather recon, before the U-2 came online. They can fly very high indeed, and handle well at 50,000 ft. Oldies, but Goodies.

  3. Indeed: ‘Oldies, but Goodies’! There was a time (Pre E.U.) when those Brits made some decent aircraft. The Canberra (B-57) is a distinguished, albeit somewhat unknown, U.S.A.F. Vietnam COMBAT vet as well!

  4. I never knew what sort of planes were used to track launches. I figured it must be some sexy fighter so that it could use its speed to keep up for a while. When I saw that they were WB-57s I did a double-take. Why on earth would we use those old things? Maybe NASA’s budget crunch? As I read more about them (I didn’t really know much about the B-57) it became clear that this ‘oldie but goodie’ is just right for the job.