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A high-definition military photo shot in the final moments before Columbia broke apart is “not very revealing,” a NASA official said Friday. But investigators were optimistic that a recovered section of the shuttle’s wing could provide solid clues.
The photo, shot by a powerful Air Force telescope camera in New Mexico, shows a fuzzy, batwing-shaped silhouette of the shuttle with a dark gray streak behind the left wing. Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said it would take further study to determine whether the image shows a problem with the shuttle and if the streak is from Columbia, or only a technical aberration in the photo. “It is not clear to me that there is something there,” he said.
Some people have said they see damage on the left wing, thought to be the heart of Columbia’s problems, Dittemore said. “It does look like there’s something just a little different about the left-hand side behind the wing than the right-hand side,” Dittemore said. “That does look a little different to us and is an area of investigation.” He said the photo doesn’t resolve the question of whether the shuttle may have been seriously damaged by a chunk of foam debris that struck Columbia on the left wing shortly after liftoff Jan. 16. “It does not indicate whether an event occurred on launch day, in orbit or even during re-entry,” Dittemore said. “You cannot tell from that photograph that an event occurred.”
Crews searching for shuttle debris across Texas recovered part of one of Columbia’s wings near Fort Worth, but Dittemore said it wasn’t yet known if it came from the left side. “Certainly we’re more interested in the left wing,” he said. If it turns out to come from the left side, it may provide hard evidence as to what went wrong as Columbia descended over the western United States last Saturday.
Dittemore said the recovered piece has 26 to 27 inches of carbon-composite panel, which reinforces the leading edges of space shuttle wings for thermal protection during the searing heat of atmospheric re-entry, reaching as high as 3,000 degrees. The piece also has 18 inches of actual wing structure.
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