A military photo has not helped space agency officials find immediate clues to explain the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia a week ago, but new debris recovered yesterday may bolster the investigation.
The photo from a military base in New Mexico is “not very revealing,” shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said yesterday. The photo is a black-and-white image that portrays Columbia as a fuzzy silhouette.
“It is not clear to me that there is something there,” Mr. Dittemore said.
Mr. Dittemore said some people say they see damage on the left wing in the photo and that there is a gray streak behind the left wing in the image he held up during a press conference at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“It does look like theres something just a little different about the left-hand side behind the wing than the right-hand side. That does look a little different to us and is an area of investigation,” he said.
Officials at Kirtland Air Force Base, in New Mexico, confirmed that they took the photo of Columbia as it crossed the state about one minute before the shuttle disintegrated.
The image is being reviewed by an independent group investigating the breakup of the shuttle, which killed all seven astronauts on board. The Columbia was captured by the Starfire telescope, which is operated by the Directed Energy Directorate of the Air Force Research Lab at Kirtland Air Force Base.
“We did the shuttle on its descent over New Mexico,” Air Force research lab spokesman Rich Garcia said.
If investigators confirm that the photo shows damage to the left wing, it could lend credence to speculation that insulating foam that flew off an external fuel tank during takeoff Jan. 16 damaged the wing and played a role in the shuttle explosion. But Mr. Dittemore said the photo doesnt help clarify whether the shuttle was damaged by foam debris.
“It does not indicate whether an event occurred on launch day, in orbit or even during re-entry,” Mr. Dittemore said. “You cannot tell from that photograph that an event occurred.”
Space agency officials said yesterday that a recovery crew found a large piece from one of the shuttles wings early Thursday near Fort Worth, Texas.
Major Gen. Michael Kostelnik, deputy associate administrator of the International Space Station, said the reinforced carbon that was found belongs to the front edge of one of Columbias wings.
It is not clear which wing it belongs to, he said. The carbon-based material gives the wing its aerodynamic shape and provides heat protection.
“This has been a significant recovery,” Gen. Kostelnik said.
Investigators should be able to determine quickly whether the fragment comes from the left or right wing, Mr. Dittemore said.
“I think we should be able to determine that in the next day or so,” he said.
The piece is about 27 inches long and is attached to a portion of the wing structure that is 18 inches long.
If it is a portion of the left wing, it may be the most important fragment recovered from the wreckage of Columbia so far. Investigators remain perplexed over readings from sensors in the left wing that indicated severe overheating.
The fragment will be taken to Fort Worth, but it is likely to be transferred to Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, La., one of NASAs main storage areas for shuttle pieces.
Discovery of the wing fragment has given NASA renewed hope that it can figure out what happened to the Columbia.
“We are going to find the problem. I dont think thats the central issue,” Gen. Kostelnik said.
Gen. Kostelnik said more than 1,200 people are helping recover debris from the Columbia and that more than 12,000 pieces have been recovered. The Columbia was composed of 2 million parts.
Workers are looking in an area that extends 150 miles west of Fort Worth in hopes of uncovering more debris. A separate group of investigators has been checking reports of debris in California and Arizona, but there are no confirmed reports of shuttle debris west of Texas.
NASA received 350 reports of shuttle debris outside Texas and Louisiana.
An amateur astronomer who videotaped the Columbia as it passed over San Jose, Calif., said the video showed flares of light that appeared to be parts breaking off the shuttle. Another amateur astronomer made a digital time-exposure photograph in San Francisco that showed a purplish light corkscrewing through the shuttles trail.
“Were looking at a lot of video,” Gen. Kostelnik said.
But 32 seconds of data that the space agency has been trying to decipher is proving useless in the investigation, NASA said.
The space agency had 32 seconds of computer data that were recorded after the Johnson Space Center stopped receiving readings from the Columbia.