[meteorite-list] Military Radar Indicates Something May Have Separated From Columbia In Orbit
From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu Apr 22 10:18:25 2004
NASA studies telemetry for signs of orbital impact
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
February 8, 2003
A military radar system shows indications that an object might have separated
from the shuttle Columbia in orbit, prompting a review of telemetry by NASA
flight controllers to look for signs of anything - including impact by
high-velocity space debris - that might have contributed to the shuttle's
breakup Feb. 1 during re-entry.
NASA sources said the radar data apparently shows a small object suddenly
separating from the shuttle at about five meters per second, or roughly 11.2
mph, on Jan. 17, about 24 hours after Columbia's launch from the Kennedy
NASA officials late Saturday confirmed shuttle engineers are reviewing
telemetry from the ship to determine if any sort of propulsive or other event
might have happened that could explain such radar observations.
Shuttle crews routinely dump waste water overboard, which instantly turns into
a rapidly expanding cloud of ice crystals. It's not yet known whether a routine
water dump could have resulted in the observed radar "signature."
Occasionally, large plugs of ice develop on the water dump nozzles. Whether
such an ice plug might have been blown off during an otherwise routine water
dump - showing up on radar as an object moving away from the orbiter - is not
It's also possible some piece of non-critical hardware was somehow released
or ejected from the shuttle without the crew's knowledge, something that would
not have played a role in Columbia's re-entry breakup Feb. 1 over Texas.
Columbia was destroyed 16 minutes from landing when it veered out of control.
Telemetry from the shuttle shows elevated temperatures in a landing gear
wheel well and along the left side of the fuselage during the final eight minutes
Telemetry also shows an unusual aerodynamic drag on the left wing, which
tended to force the ship to pull to the left. Columbia's flight control system
attempt to correct for this drag by adjusting the craft's trim. Moments later,
contact was lost.
What might have caused problems for the left wing is not yet known.
During launch Jan. 16, foam debris from the shuttle's external tank hit the
underside of the wing and outside analysts have speculated that impact might
have weakened the shuttle's thermal protection system tiles enough to trigger
the catastrophe during re-entry.
But it's also possible impact by space debris could have damaged the heat
shield tile or the carbon-carbon panels protecting the leading edge of the wing
by knocking a piece off the shuttle. While a tile would be visible to a powerful
radar, NASA engineers have not yet confirmed such an impact took place.
Agency officials stress they are investigating those possibilities and many
In east Texas, meanwhile, a large section of the shuttle Columbia's lower
fuselage - possibly part of its rear body flap or a piece of a landing gear door -
was recovered today near Nacogdoches. But NASA engineers have not yet
determined whether debris found earlier near Fort Worth is part of the ship's
left or right wing.
The debris found near Nacogdoches appears to have curved hinge components
on each side, indicating it was moveable hardware. Heavily damaged black heat
shield tiles on the debris show it came from the bottom of the spacecraft.
The only large hinged panels on the shuttle's fuselage are the nose and main
landing gear doors, the external tank umbilical attachment covers and a large
"body flap" at the rear of the shuttle that shields the main engines from heat
The debris found today appeared to be part of the body flap, but television views
were not conclusive. While its shape was roughly correct, it was smaller than a
complete body flap, indicating a large piece is still missing.
NASA officials, meanwhile, said work continues to establish a reliable timeline
showing when various sensors failed during re-entry or detected
higher-than-normal temperatures on the left side of the shuttle. The timeline is
not yet complete, but officials hope to finalize the details over the next few
NASA officials also dismissed media reports earlier today that raised the
possibility precautions could have been taken before Columbia's return to Earth
that might have helped minimize left-wing heating during re-entry.
During a flight in 2000, engineers studying launch video were concerned a
six-inch piece of ice falling away from the ship's external fuel tank might have
hit and damaged protective tiles on one of the wings. Playing it safe, flight
controllers re-oriented the shuttle just before re-entry, "shadowing" the area
in question to help lower its temperature. The idea was to slow the onset of
In Columbia's case, officials said today, the shuttle's orientation, or attitude,
during the mission resulted in lower-than-normal temperatures across the
lower fuselage. As a result, Columbia was re-oriented to warm the belly
slightly, part of a routine procedure to properly control main landing gear tire
NASA spokesman Kyle Herring said the re-entry flight profile was normal and
dismissed speculation flight controllers could have re-oriented the shuttle
during its descent through the atmosphere to ease the effects of heating.
"There is no protected, secret attitude we can fly," he said. "We already fly the
most benign entry possible."
Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said much the same thing last week,
pointing out that any attempt to favor one wing would subject the other wing to
extreme, inherently hazardous conditions.
Received on Sat 08 Feb 2003 11:43:16 PM PST