- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

An object that came off the Space Shuttle Columbia is under scrutiny by investigators as a clue to the spacecraft's disaster.
United States Space Command is responsible for tracking all of the objects in orbit around the Earth. There are approximately 8,800 objects in space, including operational satellites. However, most of the objects are space junk old rocket stages, nonfunctional satellites, protective covers that have been ejected from satellites and other forms of debris.
After the Columbia accident, any organization involved with the shuttle's mission, directly or indirectly, went over its records to try to see if there was additional data that could help the investigation.
A close investigation of the raw data from Space Command's radars has revealed that there was an object close to the shuttle the day after launch. The object re-entered the Earth's atmosphere several days later.
"It's been the most laborious examination that has taken place in the history of Space Command, looking at the data," Brig. Gen. Duane Deal said.
The object was tracked by radars across the United States located at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, Beale Air Force Base in California and Cape Cod Air Force Base in Massachusetts, along with a series of Navy radars. The radars were not specifically looking for the Columbia or any objects in the shuttle's vicinity, but picked up the additional object during their normal operations.
The investigation team believes the object is approximately 1 square foot in size and relatively light. The piece appeared to be semistable and then entered a slow rotation what normally would be expected by a piece of debris. It made a natural re-entry into the Earth on Jan. 20 over the South Pacific.
Based on the relatively slow rate the object moved away from Columbia there is virtually no doubt it came from the shuttle.
"You or I could invent a dozen scenarios," Gen. Deal said. "It could have been something loose that separated, it could have been something inside the payload bay. It also could have been part of the left wing, where all the overheating and other troubles developed during re-entry."
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board is investigating whether or not this piece of debris has anything to do with the accident.
Whatever the object was, it was extremely unusual.
Satellite tracker Ted Molczan studied the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's database for each of the 112 shuttle missions that reached orbit.
"There have only been a handful of unplanned pieces which have come from the shuttle. Most are objects accidentally released by astronauts during spacewalks," Mr. Molczan said.
The only other objects that unintentionally came from a shuttle were two pieces of debris on a shuttle mission in September 1993. That mission launched an experimental communications satellite.

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