Skip to comments.Radar tests point to lost panel on shuttle
Posted on 04/02/2003 7:34:13 PM PST by Prince Charles
Radar tests point to lost panel on shuttle
13:56 02 April 03
NewScientist.com news service
Tests have revealed that an object spotted falling from the space shuttle Columbia on the second day of its doomed mission was a panel of protective heat-resistant tiles.
The absence of this panel would have provided a point of entry in the shuttle's left wing for the superhot gases that investigators believe got inside the craft during re-entry. The plasma melted the shuttle's aluminium frame and caused the craft to disintegrate, with the loss of all seven astronauts aboard.
Radar pictures revealed the object falling from the shuttle as it performed a pivotal manoeuvre in orbit for a scientific experiment. Investigators have now taken radar images of various shuttle components to try to find a match.
"Only the carrier panel remains a viable candidate for the day two object," said Air Force Major General John Barry, a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), on Tuesday.
This latest development in the investigation permits an entire chain of events to be provisionally constructed. Video footage of Columbia's launch shows the left wing being struck by a piece of foam from an external fuel tank. This may have caused critical damage to the protective tiling.
Barry said the carrier panel could have remained in place during lift off because of the pressure of passing air. Once in orbit, the panel fell off and the shuttle's fate was sealed.
However, Roger Tetrault, another CAIB member, cautioned against rushing to a conclusion and prematurely ruling out other explanations for the object. "You can't make this leap of faith," he said. The investigators plan more tests in which foam samples are fired at a space shuttle wing to better understand the damage this could have caused.
The carrier panel is located between panels on the wing's leading edge and on the flat underside of the wing. It forms a smooth surface that protects the shuttle's wing from the extreme heat generated during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.
Investigators also said on Tuesday that they are examining the extent to which paint primer from the shuttle's launch pad support structure may have corroded the reinforced carbon wing tiles prior to launch.
The primer is known to cause small holes in the protective material, and investigators believe this may have exacerbated the damage sustained during launch.
Finally, CAIB said that early analysis of the magnetic tape recovered from an experimental data recorder shows that it stored information from nearly all 721 shuttle sensors connected to it. The tape's data has already revealed that extreme heating in Columbia's left wing occurred much earlier than previously indicated.