[meteorite-list] Cosmic bolt probed in shuttle disaster
From: Jerry A. Wallace <jwal2000_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu Apr 22 10:18:26 2004
NOTE: Interesting part towards end of article describes upper atmosphere
electrical phenomenen (sprite) believed to have been triggered by passing
Friday, February 7, 2003 (SF Chronicle)
Cosmic bolt probed in shuttle disaster/Scientists poring over 'infrasonic'
Sabin Russell, Chronicle Staff Writer
Federal scientists are looking for evidence that a bolt of electricity in
the upper atmosphere might have doomed the space shuttle Columbia as it
streaked over California, The Chronicle has learned.
Investigators are combing records from a network of ultra-sensitive
instruments that might have detected a faint thunderclap in the upper
atmosphere at the same time a photograph taken by a San Francisco
astronomer appears to show a purplish bolt of lightning striking the
Should the photo turn out to be an authentic image of an electrical event
on Columbia, it would not only change the focus of the crash
investigation, but it could open a door on a new realm of science.
"We're working hard on the data set. We have an obligation," said Alfred
Bedard, a scientist at the federal Environmental Technology Laboratory in
Boulder, Colo. He said the lab was providing the data to NASA but that it
was too early to draw any conclusions from the sounds of the shuttle
The lab has been listening to the sounds of ghostly electromagnetic
phenomena in the upper atmosphere, dubbed sprites, blue jets and elves.
For some time, scientists have speculated on whether these events could
endanger airliners or returning spacecraft.
A study conducted 10 years ago for NASA found that there is a 1-in-100
chance that a space shuttle could fly through a sprite, although it
concluded that the consequences of such an event were unclear. And in
1989, an upper- atmospheric electrical strike "shot down" a high-altitude
NASA balloon 129,000 feet over Dallas.
NASA officials have said they are looking for a "missing link" to explain
the shuttle's breakup that killed seven astronauts Saturday, and they are
downplaying the theory that foam insulation falling from the shuttle's
extra tank may have contributed to the shuttle's demise.
The little-known infrasound project at the Environmental Technology
Laboratory operates a network of sophisticated electronic ears that can
pick up subaudible thuds of waves crashing on either coast of the United
States and the hiss of meteors and spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere
thousands of miles away.
Sound waves of this nature are called "infrasonic" and are below the
of human hearing but travel unimpeded for extraordinary distances. Arrays
of infrasonic sensors in the high Colorado plains east of Boulder recently
have been looking for the crackle of the ghostly electromagnetic events in
the Earth's upper atmosphere.
"We basically detect events at very long ranges," Bedard said. But he
stressed that it was too early to draw any conclusions from sounds of the
shuttle re-entry. Bedard said the acoustic sensors had previously detected
the re-entry of a space shuttle from Northwest Canada to the Kennedy Space
Originally, it was thought that the electrical charges in the thin
atmosphere 50 miles above Earth were too dispersed to create infrasound.
But Los Alamos National Laboratories physicist Mark Stanley said that, on
closer inspection, "we've seen very strong ionization in sprites"
indicating that there were enough air molecules ionized to cause heating
and an accompanying pulse -- a celestial thunderclap, as it were.
NASA administrators confirmed Thursday that the photograph, taken from
Bernal Heights in San Francisco by an amateur astronomer, is being
evaluated by Columbia crash investigators. However, Shuttle Program
Manager Ron Dittemore told reporters at a Houston news briefing that right
now NASA is trying only to verify "the validity" of the image.
The astronomer, who has asked that his name not be used, has declined to
release the digital image to the media. But earlier in the week, he
permitted Chronicle reporters to view the image and invited one to his
home Tuesday evening, when the camera, and a disk of the image, were
turned over to former shuttle astronaut Tammy Jernigan for transit to
The image was also e-mailed Tuesday evening to Ralph Roe Jr., chief
engineer for the shuttle program at Johnson Space Flight Center in
Dittemore would not say during the news conference whether NASA has ruled
in or ruled out one possible explanation for the photo: that the image
could have been caused by jiggling of the camera. It was a Nikon M-880
mounted on a tripod. The automatically timed exposure of four to six
seconds was triggered by finger.
"We have to validate whether it is real," Dittemore said. "This
one is no different from the others. . . . It has yet to be determined
whether this is important to us or not."
NASA officials have stressed the importance of photographic, video or
debris evidence from the earliest moments of the shuttle's distress, which
sensors indicate began at about 5:53 a.m. above California. That's when
sensors in a wheel well blinked out, in the words of NASA investigators,
"as if someone cut a wire."
That is also roughly the time during which the amateur photographer
snapped his image of Columbia as it streaked across the sky north of San
Francisco. A precise time may be mapped by matching the photo and the
strange electrical signature to the crisp background field of stars.
Physicists have long jokingly referred to the lower reaches of the
ionosphere -- which fluctuates in height around 40 miles -- as the
"ignorosphere," due to the lack of understanding of this mysterious realm
of rarefied air and charged electric particles.
The family of "transient" electrical effects occupy this part of the sky,
including sprites, which leap from the ionosphere to the tops of
thunderheads, and blue jets, which leap from thunderhead anvils to the
Streamers of static electricity can travel these realms at speeds 100
times that of ground lightning, or 20 million miles an hour.
Ten years ago, Walter Lyons, a consultant with FMA Research Inc. in Fort
Collins, Colo., conducted a study of sprite danger for NASA. "We concluded
that there is about 1 chance in 100 that a shuttle could fly through a
sprite. What impact, we didn't know for certain. It didn't appear at this
time that the energy would be enough to cause problems."
But Lyons conceded that the "ignorosphere" is a mysterious place that has
yielded startling surprises. "Since then, with research on electrical
streamers, the discovery of blue jets, the doubt has gone up," he said.
"There are other things up there that we probably don't know about,"
Lyons said. "Every time we look in that part of the atmosphere, we find
something totally new."
LACK OF RESEARCH FUNDING
But the field is dominated by a small club of electrophysicists who have
seen their money for research dry up. Ironically, an experiment of Israeli
astronaut Ilan Ramon, aboard the doomed Columbia, was among the last fully
funded work conducted on sprites. Lyons, considered to be one of the
leading authorities, said he played a role in the design of the
To date, sprites have required the presence of a significant electrical
storm on the ground. As the shuttle passed over Northern California, there
were some heavy rain showers in the far north of the state, but none of
the wild weather normally associated with sprites.
Hearing a description of the purplish, luminous corkscrew in the San
Francisco photograph, Lyons said, "This was not a sprite event . . . but
maybe it is another electrical phenomenon we don't know about."
Whether or not an electrical discharge might be involved in the demise of
Columbia, there is precedent for an event like this.
Scientists have observed interaction between a blue jet and a meteor. And
in December 1999, Los Alamos National Laboratories researcher David
Suszcynsky and colleagues, including Lyons, published an account of a
meteor that apparently triggered a sprite. Their account is published in
the Journal of Geophysical Research.
"It was a singular observation that had us all scratching our heads,"
said Lyons. In the strange world of sprite and elf research, scientists have
documented one event in which some sort of high atmospheric event "shot
down" a high-altitude balloon over Dallas.
On June 5, 1989, before the first sprite was ever photographed, a NASA
balloon carrying a heavy pack of instruments suffered "an uncommanded
payload release" at 129,000 feet, according to Lyons. It landed in an
angry Dallas resident's front yard.
Investigators found scorch marks on the debris and considered it one of
the first bits of solid evidence that sprites exist. As a result of the
accident, NASA no longer flies balloons over thunderstorms.
Ironically, the balloon was launched from a NASA facility in Palestine,
Texas, one of the towns where debris from the space shuttle Columbia fell
E-mail Sabin Russell at srussell_at_sfchronicle.com.
Copyright 2003 SF Chronicle
--Received on Sun 09 Feb 2003 03:10:09 PM PST