Radar suggests collision in orbit

Images indicate debris might have hit shuttle

February 09, 2003|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOUSTON - Department of Defense officials scouring routine radar samples have discovered evidence of an object "in the vicinity" of the space shuttle Columbia as it settled into orbit during the second day of its mission, NASA officials said last night.

According to the radar images, the object neared Columbia, then appeared to pass by, officials said - and might have struck it. The data, which NASA was only beginning to analyze, could mark a pivotal turn in the investigation into the craft's Feb. 1 disintegration over Texas.

Several former National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials said it could support the notion that the space shuttle was not the victim of a launch pad accident, as many have surmised, but was struck by some sort of space junk or a tiny meteorite. Some analysts believe an impact like that, even if it was so soft that it was not detected by the crew, Columbia's computers or Mission Control in Houston, could have opened enough of a wound to ultimately destroy the craft.

"Whether this is something pertinent or not, that data is still being assessed," said NASA spokesman James Hartsfield. "We don't have answers yet. We're getting information that is interesting, but we have to assess it."

Navy Lt. Mitch Holmes confirmed last night that the Department of Defense has turned the data over to NASA. He said the U.S. Air Force Space Command operates a bank of radar and optical telescopes that track an estimated 8,500 pieces of man-made debris in space, each at least as large as a baseball. One of those pieces is believed to be the item that popped up on the radar.

Holmes said it was unclear why it took more than a week for the data to reach NASA.

"There are thousands - hundreds of thousands - of bits of information they are trying to piece together," he said. "I'm not sure why this is coming across now."

The radar images were captured on Jan. 17, a day after Columbia lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The images show an "item or object in the vicinity" of the shuttle, Hartsfield said.

It remained unclear what the object was - it could merely mark the everyday operation of the space shuttle. For example, the crew could have performed a routine dumping of waste or wastewater, which could have been enough to register a blip on high-level radar.

About 80 seconds after the space shuttle lifted off Jan. 16, a 2.7-pound piece of foam insulation fell off an external fuel tank and struck the left wing portion of the shuttle. Engineers discovered the incident while reviewing video of the launch.

As Columbia carried out its mission, including scores of science experiments in space, NASA launched an investigation into the amount of damage the foam insulation might have caused. They concluded that even under the worst scenarios they could feed into their computers, the insulation would have damaged a 32-inch-long strip of heat-resistant tiles - not enough to threaten the craft or the crew.

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