NASA now thinks that something other than insulation from the booster hitting the left wing of the space shuttle Columbia during liftoff caused the shuttle to disintegrate on re-entry.
A photograph taken by an amateur astronomer in San Francisco showing a bolt of energy striking the shuttle just as the re-entry maneuver began has been sent to NASA for analysis.
There was a coronal mass ejection from the sun reaching the earth during the period that the shuttle was re-entering the atmosphere. This CME was not in itself unusual, but it could have charged the shuttle's tiles with an electrical charge. If sufficiently high, this charge would have caused a potentially damaging discharged as the shuttle touched the upper atmosphere.
According to a paper presented in IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Science (vol. NS-30, Dec. 1983, p. 4296-4301), the glass coating of the tiles creates discharge pulses under irradiation conditions. Normally, these pulses would dissipate gradually over time. But the charged condition of the upper atmosphere at that time could have changed the picture.
An electrostatic event of sufficient power could have damaged the tiles enough to result in a chain-reaction peeling back along the leading edge of the left wing, which is apparently the event that initiated the break-up of the orbiter.
Space debris is also a possible culprit. By some estimates, there are over a million pieces of such debris in orbit, all but 9,000 of them smaller than a tennis ball. A small impact in just the wrong place could have had a devstating effect as well.
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