Cosmic bolt probed in shuttle disaster
February 7, 2003 12:32 AM   Subscribe

Cosmic bolt probed in shuttle disaster - Scientists poring over 'infrasonic' sound waves 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.
posted by y2karl (29 comments total)
Wow. That's one of the best science news articles I've ever seen in a daily paper. I loved this:

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...Streamers of static electricity can travel these realms at speeds 100 times that of ground lightning, or 20 million miles an hour..."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."

I didn't love this:

the field is dominated by a small club of electrophysicists who have seen their money for research dry up.
posted by mediareport at 1:44 AM on February 7, 2003

Uhm, wow. Fascinating article.

I remember reading about the astronomer who took photographs of the shuttle, only to discover the odd lightning (not visible to his naked eye) upon viewing the photos.

If this turns out to be the reason Columbia broke up on re-entry, I won't know what to think about the shuttle program. I mean, what a total crap shoot. "You may or may not be struck by completely unpredictable and mysterious lightning upon re-entry. Have fun!"
posted by xyzzy at 2:06 AM on February 7, 2003

As the article mentions in the third section, it would be tragically ironic if upper atmosphere electricity actually did cause the shuttle crash, because the Israeli astronaut was actually conducting a successful experiment on just that very subject.

Now if you'll excuse me I have "an uncommanded payload release" to deal with.
posted by raaka at 2:16 AM on February 7, 2003

But the real question is: Was the cargo bay modified with a "sniper's hole" for shooting out of?
posted by DBAPaul at 2:38 AM on February 7, 2003

I mean, what a total crap shoot.
When has manned space travel been anything but a 'crap shoot'?
posted by PenDevil at 2:53 AM on February 7, 2003

It's obvious, there must be Evil over Palestine. We should bomb.
posted by pekar wood at 3:15 AM on February 7, 2003

PenDevil: Well, so far we have been able to blame all major disasters on human error. Apollo 1 burned up on the landing pad due to some engineering problem, Apollo 13 was the result of a quadruple error due to problems with building, and Challenger was a design issue. If this turns out to be a case of "shuttle struck by lightning" then it introduces another level of complexity to manned spaceflight--one that is difficult to predict. It's one thing to say "hmm.. don't re-renter. We have a hurricane." It's another to figure out when elves and sprites are going to strike, since apparently we don't know jack about them.
posted by xyzzy at 3:36 AM on February 7, 2003

Well seeing that man made errors are much more common than freak events of nature I think that the 'crap shoot' nature of space travel can still be attributed more to that than rogue bolts of lightning.
posted by PenDevil at 4:14 AM on February 7, 2003

This is highly speculative. For one thing, I'd like to see how a photo taken from the ground can "show a bolt of lightning striking the shuttle", when so far all the photos we've seen show blurry dots of light and not much more. The SFgate is so far the most reliable source for this info, which yesterday was carried and discussed in less than respectable places ("could it be an electron-beam-based- weapon shot from the Middle East or North Korea?" Answer is: unless thay know something we don't, NO. "Do users of the digital camera model used two take the picture complain about blue artifacts in photos?" The answer is YES.).

I am still betting on the simpler explanations: the piece foam that fell off the tank and the fact that the shuttle stayed on the pad prior to launch longer than ever before, 39 days if I remember correctly. During this time, it endured severe rain on several occasions. Was the foam soaked and /or iced solid? NASA says no, but they also discarded faulty O rings from the start in the Challenger investigation, only to reconsider, revisit and ultimate recognize the error.
posted by magullo at 4:57 AM on February 7, 2003

What are the odds of this happening as opposed to a simple, Occam's razor mechanical failure or human error? While it should be investigated, I find it disingenuous to invoke obscure bolts of electricity as a major possible cause of the Columbia accident.
So far, it sounds suspiciously like "hey, the very hand of God did it! Thanks for the budget increase, Mr. President!"
posted by 111 at 5:00 AM on February 7, 2003

only to reconsider, revisit and ultimate recognize the error.

And hope they do the same again this time around.
posted by sebas at 5:01 AM on February 7, 2003


Great internal link to the Reuter's story, and “tragically ironic” is right:
“It seems that the atmosphere still holds surprises for us,” Yair said.

... and then you have to go and add:
“Now if you'll excuse me I have "an uncommanded payload release" to deal with.”

posted by jpburns at 5:45 AM on February 7, 2003

I don't understand NASA's need for video and photographs shot by amateurs during Columbia's descent to Earth. My expectation was that cameras, either on satellites or the ground, would be trained on the craft at all times. Has anyone seen an explanation why this isn't the case?
posted by rcade at 5:48 AM on February 7, 2003

NASA press release: "Sprites observed outside the US," June 7, 1995

NASA photos of sprites and jets.

Space Shuttle Observations of Lightning
posted by kirkaracha at 6:04 AM on February 7, 2003

Best explanation to not having the shuttle under surveillance at all times...


The shuttle's orbit is such that it's over a place on the ground less than two minutes, IIRC. The cost of a network of ground track cameras would be astronomical (pardon the phrase...) and in all honesty of dubious value given the variables of weather and daylight. If nothing happens, there's folks who'd scream about it being a waste of money. If something does happen, you'd need it to be nighttime, over the horizon, and clear for a halfway decent picture.

Satellite cameras - most are designed for weather photos which don't need really fine resolution. Spy sats - well, they're likely never around when you need them, depending on their tasking.

posted by JB71 at 6:06 AM on February 7, 2003

So, let's just pause for a moment. President Bush invokes God in his crusade against the Axis of Evil. Then, the Space Shuttle proceeds to be blown up by a "cosmic bolt" of unknown origin. Over Texas.

COME ON! This is just too rich...
posted by mkultra at 6:28 AM on February 7, 2003

I think it's obvious the aliens don't want us in space. Perhaps having to do with those probes we want to send to Europa?
posted by blue_beetle at 7:46 AM on February 7, 2003

mkultra - Over Palestine Texas! Carrying the Israeli pilot who flew the succesfull raid in '81 to blow up the Iraq nuclear reactor - Iraq's earlier attempt at "Weapoms of Mass Destruction"......sounds like Yahweh is mad at the US, or something - bolts of mysterious lightning?

But I still suspect the "random piece of junk bashes the wing underside" hypothesis .....and I am rather surprised that US gov. spooks haven't produced some poor hapless middle easterner to blame -- as the responsible "terrorist" who caused the destruction of the Columbia, symbol of US might, and humbled proud NASA by chucking a full twelve ounce can of Diet Coke at the wing underside of the Columbia at lift-off!
posted by troutfishing at 7:48 AM on February 7, 2003

I can't believe no one's linked the picture yet.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:00 AM on February 7, 2003

I believe that picture is a fake - some Farker was claiming yesterday the sent that picture to some website as a hoax and got it posted as the unreleased photo.

Farker sends Geroge Noory (Art Bell's replacement) picture from Caddyshack. George posts it as unreleased NASA photo in shuttle investigation
posted by magullo at 8:45 AM on February 7, 2003

Air Force imagery confirms Columbia wing damaged. Forget about lightning bolts.
posted by magullo at 9:31 AM on February 7, 2003

Ah, Magullo, exactly: I heard about this when I woke up. Excellent link, by the way--very informative.
posted by y2karl at 9:47 AM on February 7, 2003

I believe that picture is a fake

No way! Next you're going to tell me that Dame Edna is really a man!
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:42 PM on February 7, 2003

I don't understand NASA's need for video and photographs shot by amateurs during Columbia's descent to Earth.

From a different angle(s) your view would differ.

Should have been an article on this. A woman outside of the Dallas area has what looks like footage right under the flight path upon breaking up. You see a lot more of the space shuttle fragmenting into pieces in this video. Maybe even the wing breaking off.

It was so important to NASA that they had the NASA people coming out to the woman's home to retrace with GPS her filming footsteps.

Hope this may add to some enlightenment as it did for me.
Again sorry no links for you to see. But maybe a member can add to this...
posted by thomcatspike at 3:08 PM on February 7, 2003

The shuttle, a positively charged conductor, was moving through the negatively charged EM field in the ionosphere, when a gust of solar wind jiggled the EM field enough to induce a current in the shuttle, which then caused a deviation to the path of a columniform sprite (which, had it remained aligned to the meteor trail which had extruded the sprite in the first place, would have missed the shuttle entirely), and the combined force arising from the synergy of these phenomena was enough to...

...or, the left wing was damaged.
posted by Opus Dark at 3:38 PM on February 7, 2003

Astronauts knew of wing damage

Sen. George Allen, R-Va., said in a televised speech on Tuesday that the brother of Columbia astronaut David Brown disclosed receiving an e-mail from orbit that conveyed the crew's "concern" about the left wing, the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch reported in Wednesday's paper. According to the report, the senator said Doug Brown, who lives in Virginia, told him his brother's e-mail said the crew had taken a photo of the left wing.

Piece of metal may be from shuttle

A charred piece of metallic debris about the size of a credit card found in the dirt driveway of a Joshua Tree home may be wreckage from the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia, San Bernardino County sheriff's officials said Wednesday. The item is about 2 inches by 3 inches and about as thick as a computer floppy disk. It resembles a piece of photographic film and has features consistent with the space shuttle possibly with part of a camera, sheriff's Sgt. Fred Gonzalez said.

Final Flight Was Not Columbia's First to Face Re-entry Problems

Several space shuttle flights, including the Columbia's returns to earth in 1989 and 1995, have experienced the same kind of higher-than-normal heating on one side, and similar abnormal drag on one wing, that NASA says the Columbia went through just before its disintegration on Saturday morning.

In those flights, the shuttles went through unusual rolling and slipping from side to side, experienced higher-than-usual temperatures on parts of the wing and fuselage and were later found to have more damage than usual to tiles and other insulating elements.

NASA reports on these incidents, which began early in re-entry, said the shuttles experienced turbulence often brought on by slight protrusions of the tough carbon grouting material among the tiles. In some cases, this grouting was ripped away. Wind tunnel tests found that protrusions of as little as a quarter of an inch might make a difference, as could other surface blemishes.

posted by y2karl at 4:08 PM on February 7, 2003

Maybe the bolt came from one of the thingies in this infamous video (QT, ~1.9MB) taken by Discovery in '91.
posted by DakotaPaul at 4:55 PM on February 7, 2003

Astronauts knew of wing damage
Kostelnik ... said ... the crew's e-mails to family members and friends were private.

Oh, goodness. Is that really a consideration in a major accident investigation? X might have given clues as to what really happened, but it's a precious Family matter, therefore private?
posted by raygirvan at 6:04 PM on February 7, 2003

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