The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that a Bay Area amateur astronomer has photographs showing odd flashes of light, apparently an electrical discharge, around the space shuttle Columbia during the early phase of re-entry, just before the shuttle broke up.
At the same time that the shuttle was re-entering the earth's atmosphere, a coronal mass ejection that had left the sun hours before was reaching earth's atmosphere. While this CME was not large or unusual, it was sufficiently strong to create auroras above the Arctic Circle, and its energy would have been much greater in the area of the shuttle, above earth's protective atmosphere.
A substantial static charge building unexpectedly within the shuttle's electronic components just as the autopilot was executing the re-entry program could conceivably have caused problems with the sensitive angle of attack manuever that is essential to a safe re-entry.
The photographer is not going to make his pictures public immediately, but Chronicle reporters have viewed them and state that "they are indeed puzzling."
The photographer told the Chronicle, "They 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 discharge is described as "a bright scraggly flash of orange light, tinged with pale purple, and shaped somewhat like a deformed L."
As the flash crossed the shuttle's contrail, it immediately became brighter and began to twist, as if the shuttle had started abruptly wobbling.
While it is highly unlikely, it is not beyond conception that this flash was caused by an explosion aboard the shuttle or a weapon of some unknown kind, but this remains only speculation.
To read the Chronicle's story, click here.
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