9 February 2003
HOUSTON (Reuters) - NASA engineers were looking on Sunday into the possibility that something struck or fell away from shuttle Columbia in space a day after its launch on a mission that ended tragically when the returning spacecraft fell apart, killing its seven astronauts.
Radar images from the military agency that tracks space objects showed something moving slowly away from the orbiting Columbia on Jan. 17 in a possible clue to what caused the worst U.S. space disaster since Challenger exploded in 1986.
It could be any number of things, including debris, a small meteor, a piece of the shuttle or simply ice formed by a routine shuttle wastewater dump, NASA officials said.
"The short answer is that we don't know what it is, but we are looking at it very closely," said NASA spokesman John Ira Petty at the Johnson Space Center.
NASA engineers were examining data to see if the shuttle shook at the same time the object was spotted, indicating a possible impact, officials said.
The image was detected by the North American Aerospace Defense Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, which keeps an eye on orbiting satellites and space debris and routinely warns shuttles when they are on a collision course with space objects.
It was the latest possible clue NASA was evaluating in a fast-moving investigation into the disintegration of the agency's oldest shuttle. The spacecraft launched on Jan. 16 on a 16-day science mission and fell to earth in thousands of pieces after breaking up high over Texas just 16 minutes from landing at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Feb. 1.
Tracking cameras showed a piece of foam insulation from the spacecraft's external fuel tank striking Columbia's left wing 80 seconds after takeoff from Kennedy Space Center.
NASA UNDECIDED ABOUT FOAM DAMAGE
NASA is undecided about whether the foam could have done enough damage to the shuttle's heat-shielding tiles to cause the orbiter's breakup under the intense heat of re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.
A grainy Air Force photograph appeared to show a jagged edge in the left wing, but NASA officials said it was not clear enough to give a definitive answer.
In the spacecraft's final moments, sensors showed rising heat on the its left side and a struggle by its computerized flight system to maintain control as drag increased on the left wing.
Searchers in Texas and Louisiana have recovered thousands of shuttle parts, including a two-foot (60 cm) section of a wing found near Fort Worth, Texas.
Petty said it had not yet been determined if it came from the right or left wing. It could yield important clues if it is the left wing, NASA officials said.
A search for possible Shuttle parts extended all the way to California, they said.
Recovered pieces of Columbia have been stored at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, but would be moved to Kennedy starting mid-week, NASA said.