- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Amateur video is providing NASA some promising leads in the effort to locate debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia.

The space agency yesterday showed the Columbia Accident Investigation Board a short video pieced together from at least 15 persons throughout Western states who used video cameras to record the shuttle passing overhead on its Feb. 1 descent.

The tape provides the National Aeronautics and Space Administration a nearly continuous look at Columbia during its flight from the California coast to its fiery final moment over Texas, and it could help the space agency in its effort to recover pieces of the orbiter.

"The public video we have is probably the best data we have to try to track debris out West," said Paul Hill, flight director for the space shuttle and International Space Station.

About half of the people who submitted video footage to NASA are amateur astronomers, Mr. Hill said.

The footage NASA spliced together shows what the agency believes are the two biggest pieces of debris that fell from Columbia. The two pieces called debris 6 and debris 14 each produced bright flashes. Debris 14 was the brighter piece and continued burning for up to 7.5 seconds, Mr. Hill said.

The video hasn't helped the space agency identify the debris.

"To this day, we still cannot say exactly what it is we see," Mr. Hill said.

But the footage could help NASA figure out where to look for debris, Mr. Hill said. The agency is using the video evidence for a trajectory analysis to predict where pieces of the orbiter may have landed.

Columbia essentially shed pieces throughout its journey over the continent, Mr. Hill said. The video revealed yesterday showed 15 pieces falling from the shuttle.

He said debris 14 could be a piece of the orbiter that caught fire.

"It is reasonable to assume it is something that came off and burned or that is was a combustion product," he said.

He discounted speculation that it is the orbiter's left wing. The accident investigation board has said a breach in the left wing allowed superheated gases to penetrate the shuttle.

So far recovery crews have found only about 20 percent of Columbia's pieces, based on its weight, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said last week. No piece has been found west of Lubbock, Texas, but it is clear that parts of the orbiter fell off while it was over California.

The mosaic of video has convinced recovery crews to search a five-square-mile area for debris 6 near Caliente, Nev. The footage shows the shuttle crossing in front of the planet Venus as debris 6 falls from Columbia.

Smaller pieces of debris could have burned up before reaching the ground, William Ailor, director of the Center for Orbital and Re-entry Debris Studies at the Aerospace Corp., told the Columbia Accident Investigation Board at its public hearing in Houston yesterday. Pieces that didn't burn up probably fell straight to Earth after shedding from the shuttle, he said.

Mr. Ailor urged NASA and investigators looking into the Feb. 1 destruction of Columbia to focus efforts to find debris in the Western states.

"A key here is to look at the early debris … to try to look at what really happened before the breakup event," he said. "There may be significant pieces that have yet to be discovered."

No more than 40 percent of debris from objects re-entering the Earth's atmosphere survive, Mr. Ailor said.

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