[meteorite-list] NASA Probes 'Electric Zap' Mystery Photo

From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu Apr 22 10:18:25 2004
Message-ID: <200302052203.OAA11715_at_zagami.jpl.nasa.gov>


NASA probes 'electric zap' mystery photo
Former astronaut wowed by image snapped by California astronomer

By Joe Kovacs
February 5, 2003


That was astronaut Tammy Jernigan's stunned reaction last night
when she viewed a photo of what appears to be space shuttle
Columbia getting zapped by a purplish electrical bolt shortly before
it disintegrated Saturday morning.

"It certainly appears very anomalous," Jernigan told the San
Francisco Chronicle. "We sure will be very interested in taking
a very hard look at this."

The photo was one of five captured by an amateur astronomer in San
Francisco who routinely snaps pictures of shuttles when
they pass over the Bay area.

The pictures were taken just seven minutes before Columbia's fatal

The Chronicle reports that top investigators of the disaster are now
analyzing the startling photograph to try to solve the mystery.

The photographer continues to request his name be withheld,
adding he would not release the image publicly until NASA has a
chance to study it.

"[The photos] clearly record an electrical discharge like a lightning
bolt flashing past, and I was snapping the pictures almost exactly
... when the Columbia may have begun breaking up during
re-entry," the photographer originally told the paper Saturday

Late yesterday, the space agency sent Jernigan - a former shuttle
flyer and now manager at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories - to
the astronomer's home to view the image, and have the Nikon
camera brought to Houston today.

It was slated to be flown to the Johnson Space Center by a NASA
T-38 jet this morning.

Jernigan reportedly asked the astronomer about the f-stop setting
on his lens, and how long he kept the shutter open - apparently
some four to six seconds. A tripod was used to steady the camera,
and the shutter was triggered manually.

"In the critical shot," states the Chronicle, "a glowing purple rope of
light corkscrews down toward the plasma trail, appears to pass
behind it, then cuts sharply toward it from below. As it merges with
the plasma trail, the streak itself brightens for a distance, then

"I couldn't see the discharge with my own eyes, but it showed up
clear and bright on the film when I developed it," the photographer
previously said. "But I'm not going to speculate about what it might

David Perlman, science editor for the Chronicle, called the photos
"indeed puzzling."

"They show a bright scraggly flash of orange light, tinged with pale
purple, and shaped somewhat like a deformed L," he wrote.

Jernigan no longer works for NASA, though she's a veteran of five
shuttle missions in the 1990s. Ironically, on her final
flight, the orbiter's pilot was Rick Husband, who was at the helm
at 9 a.m. EST Saturday when Columbia broke apart during re-entry
into the atmosphere.

"He was one of the finest people I could ever hope to know,"
Jernigan said.

According to her NASA biography, Jernigan graduated from Stanford
in 1981 with a bachelor's degree in physics. She went on to earn
master's degrees in engineering science and astronomy from Stanford
and UC-Berkeley respectively. She also holds a doctorate in space
physics and astronomy from Rice University.

She's spent over 63 days above the Earth, completing 1,000 orbits,
and having walked in space for nearly eight hours during her final
mission aboard shuttle Discovery in 1999.

Before flying on shuttles, she was a research scientist in the
theoretical studies branch of NASA Ames Research Center,
working on the study of bipolar outflows in the region of star
formations, gamma ray bursters and shock-wave phenomena in the
interstellar medium.

Regarding the Columbia disaster, the space agency is additionally
investigating reports of possible remnants found in the West,
including California and Arizona.

"Debris early in the flight path would be critical because that
material would obviously be near the start of the events," said
Michael Kostelnik, a NASA spaceflight office deputy.
Received on Wed 05 Feb 2003 05:03:58 PM PST

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