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Since the unfortunate demise of the Space Shuttle Columbia
on 1 February 2003, there has been much public debate particularly on
various internet sites and forums, over the cause of the disaster,
despite the release of the official report of the
Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) in August of 2003.
Most of this debate has centered on two main questions.
Did damage caused by a foam strike on launch cause the disaster?
Did an electrical discharge event now known as "megalightning" occur in the
upper atmosphere upon reentry contributing to the demise of the shuttle?
The suggestion of the second of these options was motivated by a
curious photograph taken by an amateur astronomer during the
orbiter's reentry as reported in the
Francisco Chronicle dated Wednesday 5 February, 2003.
It is not the intention of this paper to offer 'the truth' or a 'better
theory' than other commentators, but to compare some of the published
materials in the hope of coming to a better understanding thereof.
The official summary from the CAIB report (Vol 1 page 49) is as follows:
The physical cause of the loss of Columbia
and its crew was a breach in the Thermal
Protection System on the leading edge of the left wing. The breach
was initiated by a piece of insulating foam that separated from the
left bipod ramp of the External Tank and struck the wing in the
vicinity of the lower half of
Reinforced Carbon-Carbon panel 8 at 81.9 seconds after launch.
During re-entry, this breach in the Thermal Protection System allowed
superheated air to penetrate the leading-edge insulation and
progressively melt the aluminum structure of the left wing, resulting
in a weakening of the structure until increasing aerodynamic
forces caused loss of control, failure of the wing, and breakup of
Did a super-bolt of lightning--called "megalightning"--strike
Columbia, causing the breakup of the craft?
Shocking evidence that this is so includes the image above, taken from the TV
program "Megalightning." It shows a purplish corkscrew
trail of "something" merging with the ionized plasma trail
of Columbia early in its descent, while Columbia was still 63
kilometers above the earth. One might have expected this image to
catch the attention of media around the world. But before that could
happen, both the camera and the photograph were examined by NASA
These two scenarios are considered here. The foam strike is the official
version of events and the megalightning possibility has been offered
in several public arenas as there is emerging evidence that
megalightning can occur in clear sky conditions. These arenas
I will present evidence that includes information from telemetry and
records that are not likely to have been altered or faked post the
demise of Columbia. That evidence would fulfill the legal
requirements of established fact if presented in a court of law.
That is to say, it is beyond reasonable doubt.
There has been much other speculation involving varying conspiratorial
scenarios. These are not discussed here, as there has been little if any
published material of any validity offered in support of them.
From information in the CAIB report I have developed two précis
of relevant events.
The first is a comprehensive summary of launch events and in-flight data
relevant to the possibility of a foam strike causing damage to the
space shuttle on launch. The second, to be discussed later in this paper includes a reentry
timeline incorporating telemetry from the orbiter and ground tracking
stations and a list of known communications drop-outs, and also a
discussion about megalightning events.
81-82 seconds from launch of STS-107, at around 65,850 ft a "briefcase
sized" piece of foam called the "left bipod ramp" shed
from the External Fuel Tank and struck the leading edge of the
orbiter's left wing, with a relative impact velocity of around
CAIB report Vol 1 page 34:
Post-launch photographic analysis showed that one large piece and at least two
smaller pieces of insulating foam separated from the External Tank
left bipod (–Y) ramp area at 81.7 seconds after launch. Later
analysis showed that the larger piece struck Columbia on the
underside of the left wing, around Reinforced Carbon-Carbon (RCC)
panels 5 through 9, at 81.9 seconds after launch (see Figure
2.3-2). *Further photographic
analysis conducted after launch revealed
that the large foam piece was approximately 21 to 27 inches
long and 12 to 18 inches wide, tumbling at a minimum of 18 times per
second, and moving at a relative velocity to the Shuttle Stack of 625
to 840 feet per second (416 to 573 miles per hour) at the time of
[*Original sentence corrected as per
Errata Vol 2 Appendix D.b page 19.]
A shower of foam debris after the impact on Columbiaʼs
The event was not observed in real time. [Figure 2.a.1
CAIB Report Vol 3 Appendix E.2 Page 55
Only Object 1 was confirmed to impact the left wing. There is
no conclusive evidence of more than one debris impact to the
Orbiter. A large, light-colored cloud, which emanated from the
underside of the left wing due to debris impact (Figure 18.104.22.168f),
was first observed at 016:15:40:21.863 UTC. Within the post-impact
cloud, at least two large pieces of debris were observed and measured
(see Section 22.214.171.124). There is no conclusive visual evidence of
post-impact debris flowing over the top of the wing.
Debris impact cloud seen on E-212 (Frame 4924) [Figure 2.a.2
For further evidence that the impact did take place, and that there
was some concern for the amount of damage such a strike could inflict,
we need only to go to Chapter 6 of the CAIB Report, particularly section
CAIB Report Vol 1 page 140:
6.3 DECISION-MAKING DURING THE FLIGHT OF STS-107
Initial Foam Strike Identification
As soon as Columbia reached orbit on the morning of January 16, 2003,
NASA's Intercenter Photo Working Group began reviewing liftoff imagery
by video and film cameras on the launch pad and at other sites at and
nearby the Kennedy Space Center. The debris strike was not seen during
the first review of video imagery by tracking cameras, but it was noticed
at 9:30 a.m. EST the next day, Flight Day Two, by Intercenter Photo Working
Group engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center. Within an hour, Intercenter
Photo Working Group personnel at Kennedy also identified the strike on
higher-resolution film images that had just been developed.
Because they had no sufficiently resolved pictures with which to
determine potential damage, and having never seen such a large piece
of debris strike the Orbiter so late in ascent, Intercenter Photo
Working Group members decided to ask for ground-based imagery of Columbia.
Sadly, the requested ground-based imagery never eventuated. The Report goes on to discuss
several requests for imagery, and the "missed opportunities" to properly
assess the damage and possibly effect a repair/rescue mission.
From Flight Day Two and onward through the mission, the Board identified no less
than three requests for ground/satellite based imagery and no less than
eight missed opportunities for further action.
CAIB Report Vol 1 pages 166/7:
1. Flight Day 2. Bob Page, Chair, Intercenter Photo Working Group to
Wayne Hale, Shuttle Program Manager for Launch Integration at Kennedy
Space Center (in person).
2. Flight Day 6. Bob White, United Space Alliance manager, to
Lambert Austin, head of the Space Shuttle Systems Integration at
Johnson Space Center (by phone).
3. Flight Day 6. Rodney Rocha, Co-Chair of Debris Assessment Team to
Paul Shack, Manager, Shuttle Engineering Office (by e-mail).
1. Flight Day 4. Rodney Rocha inquires if crew has been asked
to inspect for damage. No response.
2. Flight Day 6. Mission Control fails to ask crew member David
Brown to downlink video he took of External Tank separation,
which may have revealed missing bipod foam.
3. Flight Day 6. NASA and National Imagery and Mapping Agency
personnel discuss possible request for imagery. No action taken.
4. Flight Day 7. Wayne Hale phones Department of Defense representative,
who begins identifying imaging assets, only to be stopped per
Linda Ham's orders.
5. Flight Day 7. Mike Card, a NASA Headquarters manager from the
Safety and Mission Assurance Office, discusses imagery request with
Mark Erminger, Johnson Space Center Safety and Mission Assurance.
No action taken.
6. Flight Day 7. Mike Card discusses imagery request with Bryan
O'Connor, Associate Administrator for Safety and Mission Assurance.
No action taken.
7. Flight Day 8. Barbara Conte, after discussing imagery request
with Rodney Rocha, calls LeRoy Cain, the STS-107 ascent/entry Flight
Director. Cain checks with Phil Engelauf, and then delivers a
8. Flight Day 14. Michael Card, from NASA's Safety and Mission
Assurance Office, discusses the imaging request with William Readdy,
Associate Administrator for Space Flight. Readdy directs that
imagery should only be gathered on a "not-to-interfere"
basis. None was forthcoming.
The information which led to the above summary was gathered from
various logs of meetings, telephone conversations, personal conversations
and emails, all of which occurred before Columbia's demise. It is
therefore impossible (bar for the wildest of conspiracy theorists) to
suggest that the foam strike was falsified after the event to "cover up" the
"real" cause of the disaster.
As is done after every launch, within two hours of the liftoff the
Intercenter Photo Working Group examined video from tracking cameras.
An initial review did not reveal any unusual events. The next day,
when the Intercenter Photo Working Group personnel received much
higher resolution film that had been processed overnight, they
noticed a debris strike at 81.9 seconds after launch.
The objectʼs large size and the apparent momentum transfer concerned
Intercenter Photo Working Group personnel, who were worried that
Columbia had sustained damage not detectable in the limited number of
views their tracking cameras captured.
After discovering the strike, the Intercenter Photo Working Group prepared
a report with a video clip of the impact and sent it to the Mission
Management Team, the Mission Evaluation Room, and engineers at
United Space Alliance and Boeing. In accordance with NASA guidelines,
these contractor and NASA engineers began an assessment of
potential impact damage to Columbiaʼs left wing, and soon formed
a Debris Assessment Team to conduct a formal review.
CAIB report Vol 1 page 36:
Flight Day 8, Thursday, January 23
Mission Control e-mailed Husband and McCool that post- launch photo analysis
showed foam from the External Tank had struck the Orbiterʼs left
wing during ascent. Mission Control relayed that there was “no
concern for RCC or tile damage” and because the phenomenon had
been seen before, there was “absolutely no concern for
entry.” Mission Control also e-mailed a short video clip of the
debris strike, which Husband forwarded to the rest of the crew.
It is demonstrated quite clearly by all of the pre-incident information
above that there is no doubt that a foam debris strike occurred
during the launch of Columbia. Whether or not the strike caused any
significant damage is discussed in the following sections.
Not known to Mission Control, the Columbia crew, or anyone else, between
10:30 and 11:00 a.m. on Flight Day 2, an object drifted away from the
Orbiter. This object, which subsequent analysis suggests may have
been related to the debris strike, had a departure velocity between
0.7 and 3.4 miles per hour, remained in a degraded orbit for
approximately two and a half days, and re-entered the atmosphere
between 8:45 and 11:45 p.m. on January 19. This object was discovered
after the accident when Air Force Space Command reviewed its radar
CAIB report Vol 1 pages 62-63:
Immediately after the accident, Air Force Space Command began an in-depth review
of its Space Surveillance Network data to determine if there were any
detectable anomalies during the STS-107 mission. A review of the data
resulted in no information regarding damage to the Orbiter. However,
Air Force processing of Space Surveillance Network data yielded 3,180
separate radar or optical observations of the Orbiter from radar
sites at Eglin, Beale, and Kirtland Air Force Bases, Cape Cod Air
Force Station, the Air Force Space Commandʼs Maui Space
Surveillance System in Hawaii, and the Navy Space Surveillance
System. These observations, examined after the accident, showed a
small object in orbit with Columbia. In accordance with the
International Designator system, the object was named 2003-003B
(Columbia was designated 2003-003A).
The timeline of significant events includes:
January 17, 2003, 9:42 a.m. Eastern Standard Time: Orbiter
moves from tail-first to right-wing-first orientation
January 17, 10:17 a.m.: Orbiter returns to tail-first orientation
January 17, 3:57 p.m.: First confirmed sensor track of object
January 17, 4:46 p.m.: Last confirmed sensor track for this date
January 18: Object reacquired and tracked by Cape Cod Air Force
Station PAVE PAWS
January 19: Object reacquired and tracked by Space Surveillance
January 20, 8:45 – 11:45 p.m.: 2003-003B orbit decays.
Last track by Navy Space Surveillance System
CAIB report Vol 1 page 63:
In the Advanced Compact Range at the Air Force Research Laboratory in
Dayton, Ohio, analysts tested 31 materials from the Orbiterʼs
exterior and payload bay. Additional supercomputer radar cross-section
predictions were made for Reinforced Carbon-Carbon T-seals. After
exhaustive radar cross-section analysis and testing, coupled
with ballistic analysis of the objectʼs orbital decay, only
a fragment of RCC panel would match the UHF radar cross-section and
ballistic coefficients observed by the Space Surveillance
network. Such an RCC panel fragment must be approximately 140
square inches or greater in area to meet the observed radar
cross-section characteristics. Figure 3.5-1 shows RCC panel fragments
from Columbiaʼs right wing that represent those meeting the
observed characteristics of object 2003-003B.10
that the Southwest Research Institute foam impact test on panel 8
(see Section 3.8) created RCC fragments that fell into the wing
cavity. These pieces are consistent in size with the RCC panel
fragments that exhibited the required physical characteristics
consistent with the Flight Day 2 object.
CAIB report Vol 1 page 64:
F3.5-1 The object seen on orbit with Columbia on Flight Day 2 through 4
matches the radar cross-section and area-to-mass measurements of an
RCC panel fragment.
F3.5-2 Though the Board could not positively identify the Flight Day 2
object, the U.S. Air Force exclusionary test and analysis
processes reduced the potential Flight Day 2 candidates to an RCC
Due to the observed foam strike on launch and the Flight Day 2 object's
discovery, the CAIB set up a sophisticated test regime designed to
ascertain if in fact a piece of foam could, under launch separation
conditions, seriously damage an RCC panel. From video evidence,
telemetry data, computer modeling and debris recovery analysis it
was found that the most likely place of the proposed breach was on or
around RCC panel #8.
A device was constructed to replicate, as near as possible, the
approximate velocity and trajectory of a piece of bipod ramp foam
striking the orbiter as seen in the launch video. Test foam blocks
of the appropriate estimated weight and dimensions were constructed
using the same techniques and materials as used in actual bipod ramp
CAIB report Vol 1 page 79:
RCC panel assemblies were limited, particularly those
with a flight history similar to Columbia's.
The basic material properties of new RCC were known to be
highly variable and were not characterized for high strain
rate loadings typical of an impact.
The influence of aging was uncertain.
The RCC's brittleness allowed only one test impact on each
panel to avoid the possibility that hidden damage would
influence the results of later impacts.
The structural system response of RCC components, their
support hardware, and the wing structure was complex.
The foam projectile had to be precisely targeted, because
the predicted structural response depended on the impact point.
Nitrogen-powered gun at the Southwest Research Institute used
for the test series. [Figure 3.b.1
[Figure 3.b.1 incorrectly refers to a
"30 foot gun barrel" when the actual barrel length was 35
feet, as per Errata Vol 2 Appendix D.b page 19.]
Test foam blocks were fired at mock-ups of left wing leading edges, first
of fiberglass for analytical device adjustments, then at actual RCC
panels and finally at an RCC #8 panel which had flown 26 missions, from the shuttle
Atlantis. STS-107 was Columbia's 28th flight.
The final test results, to this author, were both surprising and alarming:
CAIB report Vol 1 page 82:
The large impact hole in Panel 8 from the final test. [Figure 3.b.2
Numerous cracks were also noted in RCC Panel 8. [Figure 3.b.3
Whilst some commentators have expressed doubt about the testing processes
and analyses, there are small anomalies within the ascent data which
tend to support the foam strike scenario, however this data is buried
in the CAIB report Volume 2, Appendix D.7.
CAIB report Vol 2 page 173:
There are two other indications that the foam impact occurred in the
panels 6 through 8 area. Two Modular Auxiliary Data System (MADS)
lower surface pressure measurements behaved anomalously immediately
after the time of the impact. Figure 3-13 shows the location of
these measurements along with possible areas for post-impact debris
re-contact in the vicinity of the sensors. The unusual behavior of
one of the sensors is shown in Figure 3-14.
CFD surface flow with lower left wing pressure sensors. [Figure 3.c.1
Unusual behavior of pressure sensor V07P8074A. [Figure 3.c.2
CAIB report Vol 2 page 174:
Additionally, there is another MADS measurement that had an off-nominal
signature during the ascent timeframe. The temperature sensor on the
leading edge spar behind RCC panel 9 showed a slightly higher
temperature rise than seen on any previous Columbia flight.
Figure 3-15 shows the location of the temperature sensor behind
the wing leading edge spar inside the wing. The slight temperature
rise can be seen in Figure 3-16. Note that most flights show a small
rise in this temperature during ascent due to aerodynamic heating.
Close-out photo shows RCC panel 9 wing leading edge temperature
measurement. [Figure 3.c.3
Three-bit rise (7.5 degrees F) on MADS wing leading edge spar
temperature measurement (V09T9895A) during ascent. [Figure 3.c.4
The black line in the graph above denoting STS-107 shows a rise in
temperature of 7.5 degrees F, for comparison other flights show a
maximum of 2.5 degrees F for the same period of ascent.
CAIB report Vol 2 page 175:
STS-107 had a 7.5 degree Fahrenheit rise that started very early during
ascent (five to six minutes after launch). Although the data do
not prove that the RCC was breached during ascent, the data are
consistent with a possible flow path into the RCC cavity via damage
in the RCC panels 6 through 8 area. A simplified thermal math model
was constructed and verified with flight data from STS-5. The
model was then correlated to the flight data from STS-107. Assuming
the equivalent heating from a 10 inch diameter hole in RCC panel 8,
this model nearly predicts both the ascent and entry temperature
profiles for the wing leading edge spar temperature sensor. Figure
3-17 compares the model with the
flight data for both ascent and entry. For comparison, Figure 3-18
shows the overall heating rate of the STS-107 ascent and entry
environments on RCC panel 9. As shown, the heating on the wing
leading edge is much greater during the entry profile than during the
[This graphic from page 174] Correlation between simplified thermal math model and STS-107
ascent and entry flight data. [Figure 3.c.5
CAIB report Vol 2 page 175:
STS-107 ascent and entry heating environments on RCC panel 9. [Figure 3.c.6
Although the ascent anomalies were small in nature, they were 'out of family'
in comparison to all previous Columbia launch data, further
strengthening the case for the foam strike damage scenario.
So did the foam strike damage the orbiter? Of course the CAIB report
goes into far more detail than is shown here, I have simply gleaned
from it a small portion of the most compelling data to show readers
that not only could a bipod ramp damage an RCC panel on a space
shuttle, in all likelihood in this case it did.
That is not to say it has been unequivocally proven, even the CAIB report
acknowledges this, however on balance I think it highly likely that
this did happen as proposed in the report, a view which is further
strengthened by some of the reentry data, to be discussed in the next
None of this disproves the theory that a megalightning bolt may
have struck the orbiter during reentry, however it does establish
little doubt that Columbia was significantly damaged prior to
reentry, in all likelihood contributing to it's demise.
Now we enter a much more controversial area of this study. The original
picture mentioned in the introduction of this paper has never been
released to the public to allow any independent analysis thereof.
However it was obviously interesting enough for NASA to have taken it and the
camera for further analysis, and one can only speculate as to why neither it
nor a report on it has not been released if it was found to be of no significance to the
demise of Columbia.
A copy of the picture is reproduced here for the purpose of discussion,
it must be realised however that this is not the high-resolution copy
which NASA has, but a "screen grab" from the documentary
released in the UK in 2004. Megalightning is a David Monaghan
and images from the documentary are reproduced here with permission.
A low resolution copy of the photo under current discussion.
Credit: dmptv/Peter Goldie.
Note the purple hue of the anomaly. Further discussion of this
image will be undertaken later in this paper.
In the following pages are excerpts from several media outlets, the
first of which was published after the accident but before the
authors knew of the controversial photograph, and discusses the
poorly understood nature of the ionospheric atmosphere in general.
Some scientists speculated about the possibility of Columbia's
plasma trail drawing an electrical charge to it.
Upper atmosphere may hold clues in Columbia mystery
By Dan Vergano and Tim Friend, USA TODAY
The space shuttle Columbia's troubles began as it dropped like a meteor
from orbit into a mysterious and poorly understood atmospheric
region that scientists have dubbed the "ignorosphere."
NASA proceeds with its investigation, scientists will have to ponder
the many mysteries of the "ignorosphere." A report by
NASA scientists released last fall describes concerns about the
impact of upper atmospheric phenomenon on the space shuttle:
Transparent clouds, called "noctilucent" clouds, float 50 miles above
Earth and are visible only at twilight. These silvery cirrus clouds
form at the edges of much larger clouds. Models of shuttle impacts
with them "vary from trivial to catastrophic" according to
the report, which says "the most severe effect of entry through
a noctilucent cloud would probably be the erosion of
the thermal protection system during the most critical heating
region." That critical heating region is where Columbia was
destroyed. The agency plans its re-entry paths to avoid regions
thought prone to these clouds.
Red sprites are electrical discharges in the upper atmosphere. They
occur over thunderclouds and have been considered to pose less than
a one in 100 risk to the shuttle. Some rainstorm clouds did appear
over Northern California during re-entry last Saturday but no
lightning was reported on the ground, says atmospheric scientist
Walter Lyons, of FMA Research Inc. in Fort Collins, Colo.
Density shears are patches of thicker-than-expected air that can increase
the shuttle's roll and pull on one wing. On a Columbia mission in
1992 and an Endeavor mission in 1993, hitting such patches forced
them to use up its fuel for the thrusters that help keep it on
course during re-entry.
Blue jets are upward lightning strikes. In 1998, Lyons and a team of
scientists reported one that was sparked by a meteor. "The
safety implications are just a gaping hole in our knowledge,"
As the space shuttle streaks through the upper atmosphere, it leaves a
wake in the air just as a boat leaves a wake behind it in the water.
The shuttle's wake becomes electrified. Lyons says some scientists
are speculating that its electrified wake acted as an antenna
and drew a blue jet to the Columbia. [Emphasis added]
NASA and the Air Force have been losing interest in studying the uppermost
atmosphere. Meanwhile, Lyons says scientists are still discovering
unexplained phenomenon. "We're nickel-and-diming to do our
research," he says. "And there is all sorts of
electrical foolishness going on up there that we still don't know
anything about." [Emphasis added]
Further articles explored both the photograph in question and also some of
the various characteristics of megalightning, the study of which
is even now still in its infancy.
Mysterious purple streak is shown hitting Columbia 7 minutes before it
Sabin Russell, Chronicle Staff Writer
Top investigators of the Columbia space shuttle disaster are analyzing a
startling photograph -- snapped by an amateur astronomer from a San
Francisco hillside -- that appears to show a purplish electrical
bolt striking the craft as it streaked across the California sky. [Emphasis added]
The digital image is one of five snapped by the shuttle buff at
roughly 5: 53 a.m. Saturday as sensors on the doomed orbiter
began showing the first indications of trouble. Seven minutes later,
the craft broke up in flames over Texas.
Late Tuesday, NASA dispatched former shuttle astronaut Tammy Jernigan, now
a manager at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, to the San Francisco
home of the astronomer to examine his digital images and to take the
camera itself to Mountain View, where it was to be transported by a
NASA T-38 jet to Houston this morning.
A Chronicle reporter was present when the astronaut arrived. First
seeing the image on a large computer screen, she had one word: "Wow."
Jernigan, who is no longer working for NASA, quizzed the photographer on the
aperture of the camera, the direction he faced and the estimated
exposure time -- about four to six seconds on the automatic Nikon 880
camera. It was mounted on a tripod, and the shutter was triggered
In the critical shot, a glowing purple rope of light corkscrews down
toward the plasma trail, appears to pass behind it, then cuts sharply
toward it from below. As it merges with the plasma trail, the streak
itself brightens for a distance, then fades. [Emphasis added]
"It certainly appears very anomalous," said Jernigan. "We sure
will be very interested in taking a very hard look at this." [Emphasis added]
Cosmic bolt probed in shuttle disaster
Scientists poring over 'infrasonic' sound waves
Sabin Russell, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, February 7, 2003
Federal scientists are looking for evidence that a bolt
of electricity in the upper atmosphere might have doomed the space
shuttle Columbia as it streaked over California, The Chronicle has
Investigators are combing records from a network of
ultra-sensitive instruments that might have detected a faint
thunderclap in the upper atmosphere at the same time a photograph
taken by a San Francisco astronomer appears to show a purplish bolt
of lightning striking the shuttle.
Should the photo turn out to be an authentic image of an
electrical event on Columbia, it would not only change the focus of
the crash investigation, but it could open a door on a new realm of
"We're working hard on the data set. We have an obligation," said
Alfred Bedard, a scientist at the federal Environmental Technology
Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. He said the lab was providing the data
to NASA but that it was too early to draw any conclusions from the
sounds of the shuttle re-entry.
NASA officials have stressed the importance of
photographic, video or debris evidence from the earliest moments of
the shuttle's distress, which sensors indicate began at about 5:53
a.m. above California. That's when sensors in a wheel well
blinked out, in the words of NASA investigators, "as if someone
cut a wire."
That is also roughly the time during which the amateur
photographer snapped his image of Columbia as it streaked across the
sky north of San Francisco. A precise time may be mapped by matching
the photo and the strange electrical signature to the crisp
background field of stars. [Emphasis added]
Physicists have long jokingly referred to the lower
reaches of the ionosphere -- which fluctuates in height around 40
miles -- as the "ignorosphere," due to the lack of
understanding of this mysterious realm of rarefied air and charged
electric particles. [Emphasis added]
The family of "transient" electrical effects
occupy this part of the sky, including sprites, which leap from the
ionosphere to the tops of thunderheads, and blue jets, which leap
from thunderhead anvils to the ionosphere.
Streamers of static electricity can travel these realms
at speeds 100 times that of ground lightning, or 20 million miles an
Ten years ago, Walter Lyons, a consultant with FMA
Research Inc. in Fort Collins, Colo., conducted a study of sprite
danger for NASA. "We concluded that there is about 1 chance
in 100 that a shuttle could fly through a sprite. What impact, we
didn't know for certain. It didn't appear at this time that the
energy would be enough to cause problems."
But Lyons conceded that the "ignorosphere" is
a mysterious place that has yielded startling surprises. "Since
then, with research on electrical streamers, the discovery of blue
jets, the doubt has gone up," he said.
"There are other things up there that we probably don't know about,"
Lyons said. "Every time we look in that part of the atmosphere,
we find something totally new." [Emphasis added]
Hearing a description of the purplish, luminous
corkscrew in the San Francisco photograph, Lyons said, "This
was not a sprite event . . . but maybe it is another electrical
phenomenon we don't know about." [Emphasis added]
Whether or not an electrical discharge might be involved
in the demise of Columbia, there is precedent for an event like
Scientists have observed interaction between a blue jet
and a meteor. And in December 1999, Los Alamos National Laboratories
researcher David Suszcynsky and colleagues, including Lyons,
published an account of a meteor that apparently triggered a sprite.
Their account is published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.
"It was a singular observation that had us all
scratching our heads," said Lyons. In the strange world of
sprite and elf research, scientists have documented one event in
which some sort of high atmospheric event "shot down" a
high-altitude balloon over Dallas.
On June 5, 1989, before the first sprite was ever
photographed, a NASA balloon carrying a heavy pack of instruments
suffered "an uncommanded payload release" at 129,000 feet,
according to Lyons. It landed in an angry Dallas resident's front
Investigators found scorch marks on the debris and considered it one of the first
bits of solid evidence that sprites exist. As a result of the
accident, NASA no longer flies balloons over thunderstorms.
An astronomer who regularly photographs space shuttles when they pass
over the San Francisco Bay area has captured five "strange
and provocative images" of Columbia as it was re-entering the
The San Francisco Chronicle reports the images "appear to be
bright electrical phenomena flashing around the track of the
shuttle's passage." [Emphasis added]
"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
photographer, who asked not to be identified, told the Chronicle.
The photos were snapped with a Nikon camera using a tripod.
Though the space scientist is not making the pictures public immediately, he
invited the newspaper to view the images on his home computer this
David Perlman, science editor for the Chronicle, calls the photos "indeed
"They show a bright scraggly flash of orange light, tinged with pale
purple, and shaped somewhat like a deformed L," Perlman writes.
"The flash appears to cross the Columbia's dim [white trail
formed in the wake of the craft], and at that precise point, the
[white trail] abruptly brightens and appears thicker and somewhat
twisted as if it were wobbling."
As NASA continues its probe into the precise cause of the space shuttle
Columbia disaster, government researchers are confirming the
recording of explosions as the orbiter broke apart during its fatal
According to a report in the Toledo Blade, some scientists believe the
recordings could shed light on the theory that an electrical
phenomenon called a "blue jet" knocked the shuttle out of
"We have detected sounds from shuttle re-entries in the past," Dr.
Alfred Bedard Jr. of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration said when asked about the content of infrasound
recordings from Columbia. "But we've been asked not to discuss
the results publicly, and we will honor that request."
Bedard, part of a panel of scientists who reported on infrasound research at
the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement
of Science in Denver, says the recordings have now been sent to NASA
In six minutes of recordings from Columbia, Herrin describes seven
large, distinct explosions that were initially heard over eastern New
He says a preliminary look at data collected by another array of
instruments outside Mina, Nev., show "unusual" patterns
when compared to data from other shuttle flights.
"There was something about this one. I am not going to speculate. What we
see are oscillations in the shock wave that we don't normally see.
Whether that's diagnostic or not, that's a NASA call," Herrin
Add to this the CAIB report of ground observations, which match,
as well as can be ascertained, the time
at which the anomalous photograph was taken.
CAIB report Vol 1 page 39:
Now crossing California, the Orbiter appeared to observers on the
ground as a bright spot of light moving rapidly across the sky. Signs
of debris being shed were sighted at 8:53:46 a.m. (EI+577), when
the superheated air surrounding the Orbiter suddenly brightened,
causing a noticeable streak in the Orbiter's luminescent trail.
Observers witnessed another four similar events during the following 23
seconds, and a bright flash just seconds after Columbia crossed from
California into Nevada airspace at 8:54:25 a.m. (EI+614), when the
Orbiter was traveling at Mach 22.5 and 227,400 feet. Witnesses observed
another 18 similar events in the next four minutes as Columbia streaked
over Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.
That such a photo was taken is without doubt. Some commentators have
stated that the photo was never considered or mentioned in the CAIB
report. This is incorrect, though the levels of consideration and
mention both seem surprisingly low, considering the level of public
interest and commentary on the topic, and the nature of the
I have personally read all of the six volumes of the CAIB report,
and have only found two brief mentions of the photo.
(1.) CAIB Report Vol 2 appendix D.5 - cover:
Space Weather Conditions
This appendix provides a detailed discussion of space weather (the action
of highly energetic particles, primarily from the Sun, in the outer
layer of the Earthʼs atmosphere) and the potential effects of
space weather on the Orbiter on February 1, 2003. This
investigation was originally prompted by public claims of unusually
active space weather conditions during the mission and by a
photograph that claimed to show a lightning bolt striking Columbia
at an altitude of 230,000 feet over California during re-entry.
The report concludes that space weather was unlikely to have played a
role in the loss of Columbia.
(2.) CAIB report Vol 3 Appendix E.2 page 114
6.4.3 Special Still Imagery Analyses of Alleged "Lightning"
A still image taken from California was submitted to NASA by a member
of the public. A superficial look at the image suggested that it
might record an anomalous re-entry event that was claimed to be
lightning striking the Orbiter. Our analysis suggested that the
pattern was due to camera vibrations during a long-exposure. A
separate upper atmospheric scientific team also investigated the
image. The results of those analyses are being reported separately.
I find it very curious the authors chose the words above to discount
the validity of the image, as clearly its authenticity has not been
ruled out by this statement. First, notice twice the use of the word
"A superficial look at the image suggested that it might record
an anomalous re-entry event that was claimed to be lightning striking
the Orbiter. Our analysis suggested that the pattern was due
to camera vibrations during a long-exposure."
The second occurrence of the term 'suggested' in no way negates the first
and does not convey proof nor even any certainty that "the pattern
was due to camera vibrations during a long-exposure."
I also take issue with use of the word 'pattern', as this conveys a
mental image of some sort of ordered and repetitive structure, as
may be expected of a vibration. However though the anomaly appears
to 'corkscrew' through parts of its existence, it also has several
straight segments and changes 'direction' several times.
This paragraph also mentions a "separate upper atmosphere team"
had investigated the image to be reported elsewhere, however no
mention of this other investigation of the image can be found in the
CAIB report, nor does it appear to have been reported elsewhere.
All things considered I find the official explanation of the photograph wanting of
substance and as such hopelessly inadequate under the circumstances
of an official investigation into a major disaster of catastrophic consequence.
Let us consider here these aspects.
The photographer concerned is
reportedly an amateur astronomer and shuttle buff, and has taken
similar photographs of shuttle reentry in the past.
He took five photographs on this particular occasion, each a long-exposure with
the camera mounted on a tripod, and the shutter open for a period of
some four to eight seconds.
Of the five shots taken under essentially
the same conditions, only one records such an anomaly.
In 2004 a documentary was released titled "Megalightning"
(to which some media outlets appended the phrase "Stranger
in which among other things, the Columbia disaster was featured.
But more than that, the film explores much of the research into
megalightning and has eyewitness accounts of pilots and others
who have seen such phenomena.
(Narrator) Few cloud to ground strikes are longer than three
kilometers, and text books always used to say no lightning could
exist above the clouds. But then weatherman Walt Lyons aimed his
camera across the Colorado plains on July the 6th, 1993.
What he saw, overturned 200 years of "scientific certainty",
in an instant.
He filmed these video images, showing lightning 80 kilometers high and
40 kilometers wide, firing above the clouds. Their existence had been
dismissed as fantasy. Now their discovery has shed new light on what
has been causing airplanes, to fall from the sky.
Previous to this photographic scientific evidence, many were reluctant
to report sightings of megalightning for fear of being thought of as
having hallucinations, or worse, yet eyewitness accounts date back to
the late 1960s.
(Narrator) The discovery of megalightning, began with ordinary people
seeing extraordinary things. In 1969 Stuart Beecher was defending a
mortar pit outside Saigon in South Vietnam, when a storm broke.
(Beecher) There was this giant flash of lightning that reached
from the ground, through the base of the cloud, completely illuminated
the cloud, and out the top in this absolutely beautiful double-helix
that seemed to just go on forever. ... It was just like it was going
straight into space ...
There was even some early photographic evidence such as this photo
taken at Mount Ida, Australia back in 1968.
Taken at Mount Ida in Australia in 1968
Image credit: dmptv/Tudor Williams
Notice the slight "wobbly" or helical appearance of this bolt:
Close-up of the above image
Note the helical shape of the lightning,
slightly easier to see in the color-inverted image.
[Figures 4.d.2 & 4.d.3
On March 26th 1987 NASA had to destroy a rocket after
its telemetry had been knocked out by a bolt of lightning. Then
in 1989 the first "official" photograph of megalightning
was surreptitiously captured by University of Minnesota physicists
Franz and Winckler whilst testing a new camera.
After this, NASA turned to (Lt. Col. USAFR-Ret) Otha H.
Vaughan Jr., a senior engineer with
NASA and an experienced pilot, to investigate this new phenomenon.
Earlier, Vaughan had met with a pilot who had witnessed "giant
lightning" in 1981. He had then written an article in a magazine
asking other pilots to convey similar experiences to him, and he received
some 19 responses.
Vaughan pored over many hours of NASA shuttle footage to see if he could
find other instances of megalightning not previously recognised. He
identified a further 19 instances of "this thing".
NASA then turned to Walt Lyons, a world expert in distance lightning strikes
and the person who had helped them make launches safer since the 1987 mishap,
to investigate the possibility that this new lightning could pose a threat to
shuttle missions. On his first night of filming above a distant storm
specifically looking for these phenomena, he recorded around 250 of them.
He and a friend later named them "sprites".
Only relatively recently, in the 1970s, had "positive lightning"
been identified. Until then, it was thought that all lightning bolts were
negative strokes. Positive lightning though has as much as six times the
power of negative lightning, and its duration up to ten times longer, and
is now thought to be the cause of a good many aircraft accidents. Aircraft
had only been constructed to withstand the damage sustained from regular,
After further research, Lyons found that for every sprite identified above
cloud, a positive lightning bolt issued below cloud.
(Narrator) Positive lightning and sprites were one continuous force that
stretched from the edge of space, to where ordinary planes fly.
(Lyons) We're learning that there's a whole subclass, of extremely energetic
positive cloud to ground lightning. That ... lowers maybe ten times more current
to ground, than the old textbooks said you should get.
In 1993 NASA funded the first of many sprite hunts, and one of the 200 or so
experiments on board STS-107 was to film sprites above thunderstorms.
Dr. Alfred Bedard had been the first to confirm "sprite thunder", using
the same infrasonic detection equipment which he had used for many years
to listen for rogue atom bomb testing anywhere around the globe. His
equipment was listening when the shuttle went down.
(Narrator) The detectors had heard a sinister sound before the shuttle's
(Bedard) ... What you're hearing are the bursts of energy early ... and then that
(Narrator)The signal showed there'd been an energy burst outside the shuttle before
it disintegrated. Like the sound of a distant gunshot. This was evidence other
forces were in play.
(Bedard) It had the characteristics of a geophysical kind of an event of
some sort. And as I said ... at this range in the past we've had signals
quite similar that were associated with fairly good-sized earthquakes.
(Narrator) The bomb detectors had measured a hugely powerful event. The force
of an earthquake high in the sky. It's epicenter was estimated to be in the
flightpath of the doomed shuttle.
(Bedard) Best guess would be it would be right in - somewhere around in here.
Perhaps San Francisco, perhaps a little bit south of there.
(Lyons) The chances are the sprite per se is not going to be a threat to
the space shuttle but there are other creatures up there which we maybe shouldn't
be so sure about.
There's just a lot of things happening above the cloudtops that we never knew
ten years ago and perhaps have not yet designed properly for.
Now with what we know of megalightning in mind, let's take a closer look
at the image about which there's so much disinformation and conjecture.
Some more screen grabs from the documentary "Megalightning". These
are the five images which Amateur Astronomer Peter Goldie took of Columbia's
reentry, presented here in the order in which they were taken.
The anomaly under discussion is on the third image of the sequence.
Goldie images 1 and 2 of 5
Credit: dmptv/Peter Goldie
[Figures 4.e.1 & 4.e.2
Goldie images 3 and 4 of 5
Credit: dmptv/Peter Goldie
[Figures 4.e.3 & 4.e.4
[Note: The horizontal 'banding' in these images is an
artifact of the video production.]
Here's a larger copy of number three, the image under discussion,
cropped to show the anomaly more clearly.
Goldie image #3, close-up and cropped
The dark lines roughly parallel to the plasma trail are powerlines
in the foreground. Note the purple hue of the anomaly, and also the
apparent "corkscrew" shape to it.
(Goldie) When I saw the picture, and heard the television in the
background suggesting that things were amiss, the hair on the back of
my neck stood up.
I didn't know what it was. But by all appearance, it appeared
to be a lightning bolt.
Worth noting here that this was not a 'first time' for Goldie in
capturing shuttle reentries. As an amateur astronomer, photographer
and shuttle-buff, he had taken similar pictures in the past. He himself
did not consider camera-shake as a likely candidate for the anomaly,
instead saying it looked like a lightning bolt.
Now here's the "clincher", at least for this author, it's a
close-up of the last section of the plasma trail, the right-hand portion
of the image above.
Plasma trail from Goldie image #3.
The same image with colors inverted.
It seems that in no other image of the plasma-trail left by Columbia,
does it exhibit the "wavering" which is seen in this image.
Given that the anomaly was written off as "camera shake" by
NASA, the shake should have settled down and stopped, not continued on
as is clearly visible in this image.
Close-up of the right-hand extreme of the plasma trail, annotated.
On examination of the image above, it becomes quite clear that the anomaly
continues right to the edge of the image. The two red dotted lines superimposed
on the image above indicate the straight edges of the plasma trail itself, of
more or less consistent width for the entire image. Yet it is clear that the
brighter portion appears to waver between these edges.
There is no logical reason why the orbitor should appear to wobble it's way
across the sky, whilst the plasma trail remains essentially straight. This
author has not seen anywhere, a picture of this or any other space shuttle taken with any device,
under any conditions, which exhibits this feature.
It is equally illogical to think that the photographer who took the image could
keep the camera perfectly still for the other images he took on the day, and yet
managed to make it shake for the entire time the orbiter was in frame. First a wild shake,
and then a consistent wobble for the rest of the frame.
It is the contention of
this author that the anomaly is in fact an electrical discharge, helical in form,
and which likely struck only milliseconds before the shutter was closed.
From the poor quality of the available imagery, it is impossible to tell if the anomaly
continues to the very end of the plasma trail. That is, the shuttle may not have even
been struck until milliseconds after the shutter was closed. Only careful analysis of the
original image would provide a definitive answer to this question.
The most common argument from those who agree it is camera shake, is that the
shutter was opened after the shuttle had entered the frame. The camera has
captured the luminous plasma trail left by the orbiter, and also the highly
luminous shuttle at first moving with camera shake upon opening of the shutter,
then settling down for the remainder of the time the shutter was opened. This
explanation fails to explain the phenomenon highlighted above.
Furthermore, the power lines visible in the image are rendered clearly, and one of
media reports describes a “crisp background field
A precise time may be mapped by matching the photo and the strange electrical
signature to the crisp background field of stars.
One can not help but ask why the exact time the image was taken was not calculated.
The only answer I can
deduce from the CAIB Report is that the image was considered unimportant because of
the 'anomaly' being explained away as camera shake. But this explanation again fails
to account for the apparent "crispness" of the stars in the image, and in fact the
powerlines appear to be rendered the same in all of the images taken by Goldie. Image #3
does not display any blurring of either the powerlines or the stars due to camera shake.
Below is another screen grab from the documentary which does show several stars
(and a cursor on screen), though the quality is still low.
Screen grab with stars visible.
It seems that the image was written off summarily because the sky was clear, and no
known form of lightning could be expected. When one considers how long it took to
identify positive lightning, sprites and other forms of megalightning, and that much is still unknown about
the ionosphere, this seems a rather short-sighted approach. For more on this, see
the section Space Weather below.
It bears repeating here the words of Walt Lyons from the Megalightning documentary:
The chances are the sprite per se is not going to be a threat to the space
shuttle but there are other creatures up there which we maybe shouldn't be so sure about.
There's just a lot of things happening above the cloudtops that we never knew
ten years ago and perhaps have not yet designed properly for.
Also several other experts consulted for the film offered similar opinions.
Israel's leading lightning researcher, Yoav Yair:
It's a whole menagerie out there, its a zoo. There could be other types of
discharges and emissions in the upper atmosphere.
Matt Heavner, who operates an array of ground-based lightning detectors at Los Alamos.
In terms of the middle atmosphere I think there still are
unknowns and new discoveries to be made. it definitely should be studied
in terms of safety for both manned and un-manned space flights.
Now let's take a look at the timeline of reentry to see how the
instrumentation data fits with the possibility of the proposed
megalightning strike having occurred.
CAIB Report Vol 1 page 64:
*For a complete compilation
of all re-entry data, see the CAIB/NAIT
Working Scenario (Appendix D.7), Qualification and Interpretation
of Sensor Data from STS-107 (Appendix D.19), and the Re-entry
Timeline (Appendix D.9)
[*This sentence added as per Errata
Vol 2 Appendix D.b page 19.]
As Columbia re-entered Earth's atmosphere, sensors in the Orbiter
relayed streams of data both to entry controllers on the ground
at Johnson Space Center and to the Modular Auxiliary Data System
recorder, which survived the breakup of the Orbiter and was
recovered by ground search teams. This data – temperatures,
pressures, and stresses – came from sensors located throughout
the Orbiter. Entry controllers were unaware of any problems
with re-entry until telemetry data indicated errant readings.
During the investigation data from these two sources was
used to make aerodynamic, aerothermal, and mechanical
reconstructions of re-entry that showed how these stresses
affected the Orbiter.
In the demanding environment of re-entry, the Orbiter must
withstand the high temperatures generated by its movement
through the increasingly dense atmosphere as it decelerates
from orbital speeds to land safely. At these velocities,
shock waves form at the nose and along the leading edges
of the wing, intersecting near RCC panel 9. The interaction
between these two shock waves generates extremely high temperatures,
especially around RCC panel 9, which experiences the highest
surface temperatures of all the RCC panels. The flow behind
these shock waves is at such a high temperature that air
molecules are torn apart, or "dissociated."
The air immediately around the leading edge surface can
reach 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit; however, the boundary
layer shields the Orbiter so that the actual temperature
is only approximately 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit at the leading
edge. The RCC panels and internal insulation protect the aluminum
wing leading edge spar. A breach in one of the leading-edge RCC
panels would expose the internal wing structure to temperatures
well above 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
CAIB Report Vol 1 pages 65-67:
Times in the following section are noted in seconds elapsed from
the time Columbia crossed Entry Interface (EI) over the Pacific
Ocean at 8:44:09 a.m. EST. Columbia's destruction occurred in the
period from Entry Interface at 400,000 feet (EI+000) to about
200,000 feet (EI+970) over Texas. The Modular Auxiliary Data System
recorded the first indications of problems at EI plus 270 seconds
(EI+270). Because data from this system is retained onboard, Mission
Control did not notice any troubling indications from telemetry
data until 8:54:24 a.m. (EI+613), some 10 minutes after Entry Interface.
Left Wing Leading Edge Spar Breach
(EI+270 through EI+515)
At EI+270, the Modular Auxiliary Data System recorded the first unusual
condition while the Orbiter was still over the Pacific Ocean. Four sensors,
which were all either inside or outside the wing leading edge spar near
Reinforced Carbon-Carbon (RCC) panel 9-left, helped tell the story of
what happened on the left wing of the Orbiter early in the re-entry.
Sensor 1 provided the first anomalous reading (see Figure 3.6-3).
From EI+270 to EI+360, the strain is higher than that on previous
Columbia flights. At EI+450, the strain reverses, and then peaks
again in a negative direction at EI+475. The strain then drops
slightly, and remains constant and negative until EI+495, when
the sensor pattern becomes unreliable, probably due to a propagating
soft short, or "burn-through" of the insulation between cable
conductors caused by heating or combustion. This strain likely indicates
significant damage to the aluminum honeycomb spar. In particular, strain
reversals, which are unusual, likely mean there was significant
high-temperature damage to the spar during this time.
The strain gauge (Sensor 1) on the back of the left
wing leading edge spar
was the first sensor to show an anomalous
In this chart, and the others that follow, the red line
indicates data from STS-107.
Data from other Columbia re-entries,
similar to the STS-107 re-entry profile,
are shown in the other colors. [Figure 4.f.1
At EI+290, 20 seconds after Sensor 1 gave its first anomalous
reading, Sensor 2, the only sensor in the front of the left wing
leading edge spar, recorded the beginning of a gradual and abnormal
rise in temperature from an expected 30 degrees Fahrenheit to 65
degrees at EI+493, when it then dropped to "off-scale low,"
a reading that drops off the scale at the low end of the sensor's
range (see Figure 3.6-4). Sensor 2, one of the first to fail, did so
abruptly. It had indicated only a mild warming of the RCC attachment
clevis before the signal was lost.
This temperature thermocouple (Sensor 2) was mounted on the outside
of the wing leading edge spar behind the insulation that protects the spar
from radiated heat from the RCC panels. It clearly showed an off-nominal trend
early in the re-entry sequence and began to show an increase in temperature
much earlier than the temperature sensor behind the spar. [Figure 4.f.2
The readings of Sensor 3, which was in a thermal tile, began rising
abnormally high and somewhat erratically as early as EI+370, with
several brief spikes to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, significantly
higher than the 2,000-degree peak temperature on a normal re-entry
(Figure 3.6-6). At EI+496, this reading became unreliable, indicating
a failure of the wire or the sensor. Because this thermocouple was on
the wing lower surface, directly behind the junction of RCC panel 9
and 10, the high temperatures it initially recorded were almost
certainly a result of air jetting through the damaged area of RCC
panel 8, or of the normal airflow being disturbed by the damage.
Note that Sensor 3 provided an external temperature measurement,
while Sensors 2 and 4 provided internal temperature measurements.
As early as EI+370, Sensor 3 began reading significantly higher
than on previous flights. Since this sensor was located in a thermal tile
on the lower surface of the left wing, its temperatures are much higher
than those for the other sensors. [Figure 4.f.3
Sensor 4 also recorded a rise in temperature that ended in an abrupt
fall to off-scale low. Figure 3.6-7 shows that an abnormal
temperature rise began at EI+425 and abruptly fell at EI+525. Unlike
Sensor 2, this temperature rise was extreme, from an expected 20
degrees Fahrenheit at EI+425 to 40 degrees at EI+485, and then rising
much faster to 120 degrees at EI+515, then to an off-scale high
(a reading that climbs off the scale at the high end of the range)
of 450 degrees at EI+522. The failure pattern of this sensor likely
indicates destruction by extreme heat.
Sensor 4 also began reading significantly higher than previous flights
before it fell off-scale low. The relatively late reaction of this sensor
compared to Sensor 2, clearly indicated that superheated air started on
the outside of the wing leading edge spar and then moved into the mid-wing
after the spar was burned through. Note that immediately before the sensor
(or the wire) fails, the temperature is at 450 degrees Fahrenheit and climbing rapidly.
It was the only temperature sensor that showed this pattern. [Figure 4.f.4
CAIB Report Vol 1 page 70:
Between EI+530 and EI+562, four sensors on the left inboard elevon
failed. These sensor readings were part of the data telemetered to
the ground. Noting the system failures, the Maintenance, Mechanical,
and Crew Systems officer notified the Flight Director of the failures.
(See sidebar in Chapter 2 for a complete version of the Mission
Control Center conversation about this data.)
At EI+555, Columbia crossed the California coast. People on the
ground now saw the damage developing on the Orbiter in the form
of debris being shed, and documented this with video cameras.
In the next 15 seconds, temperatures on the fuselage sidewall
and the left Orbital Maneuvering System pod began to rise.
Hypersonic wind tunnel tests indicated that the increased heating
on the Orbital Maneuvering System pod and the roll and yaw changes
were caused by substantial leading edge damage around RCC panel 9.
Data on Orbiter temperature distribution as well as aerodynamic
forces for various damage scenarios were obtained from wind tunnel testing.
Though difficult to give an exact time, it appears that the Goldie image
was taken just after the time that Columbia crossed the California coast.
This would place it roughly between EI+555 and perhaps EI+615.
estimated the picture to have been taken at around EI+562:
... the photograph, was taken from Bernal Heights in San Francisco
by an amateur astronomer. Page 8 shows Licks Observatory (slightly
east of Bernal Heights) Acquisition Of Signal was at 13:53:29
The first visual sighting of debris shedding was some 14 seconds after
Communications event 10, at 8:53:46 or EI+576
CAIB Report Vol 3 Appendix E.2 page 102:
Detailed map of the Western U.S. re-entry
debris event locations.
The blue dots and connecting lines are
the observer positions (identified by video number)
relative fields-of-view captured by their videos. [Figure 4.f.6
The timeline and data above at least help to confirm that Goldie's image #3 was
likely taken at or around the time of Communications event 10, EI+562.
It is also quite clear that the shuttle was already experiencing
significant damage by the time the anomalous photo was taken. Even if
the anomaly was confirmed as megalightning, it was likely not the
sole cause of the shuttle's demise, however it
still may have been a contributing factor.
Space weather refers to the action of highly energetic particles
in the outer layers of Earth's atmosphere. Eruptions of particles
from the sun are the primary source of space weather events, which
fluctuate daily or even more frequently. The most common space weather
concern is a potentially harmful radiation dose to astronauts during
a mission. Particles can also cause structural damage to a vehicle,
harm electronic components, and adversely affect communication
After the accident, several researchers contacted the Board and NASA
with concerns about unusual space weather just before Columbia started
its re-entry. A coronal mass ejection, or solar flare, of high-energy
particles from the outer layers of the sun's atmosphere occurred on
January 31, 2003. The shock wave from the solar flare passed Earth
at about the same time that the Orbiter began its de-orbit burn. To
examine the possible effects of this solar flare, the Board enlisted
the expertise of the Space Environmental Center of the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration and the Space Vehicles Directorate of
the Air Force Research Laboratory at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts.
Measurements from multiple space- and ground-based systems indicate
that the solar flare occurred near the edge of the sun (as observed
from Earth), reducing the impact of the subsequent shock wave to a
glancing blow. Most of the effects of the solar flare were not
observed on Earth until six or more hours after Columbia broke up.
See Appendix D.5 for more on space weather effects.
F4.2-8 Space weather was not a factor in this accident.
One of the researchers mentioned in the second paragraph above was
Cramer is an Air Ion expert who had been consultant for NASA on a
previous project where ionization expert advice was required.
In his article "Wrong
Place, Wrong Time" Cramer expresses a very different view
of the possible role of space weather on the day. He states that there
was a Rare Solar Shockwave which impacted the
ionosphere at the same time the shuttle was reentering the Earth's
This assertion is backed with data from both the ACE and SOHO satellites and
calculations which place the shockwave at the ionosphere at the time
of the shuttle's unexpected communications difficulties and the time the Goldie photo
was taken. It is worth mentioning here that Mission Control expects a certain degree
of communications drop-outs with any reentry, but that they usually begin
to occur later in the reentry timeline than on this occasion. A quote from
Cramer's article, quoting a SOHO data monitoring site (emphasis added by Cramer):
The geomagnetic field was quiet to minor storm on February 1. Solar wind
speed ranged between 338 and 971 km/sec. An unusual solar storm
arrived at SOHO near 13:10 UTC. This storm is unusual in that solar wind
speed was very low at the time of its arrival and had some of the highest
peak solar wind speeds recorded during this solar cycle. At the first solar
wind shock the velocity jumped abruptly from 390 to 520 km/sec, then increased
slowly to 600 km/sec. Near 14:30 UTC at SOHO there was another
shock, this time speed increased to above 800 km/sec. By 16h UTC solar
wind speed had peaked just below 1000 km/sec. The interplanetary magnetic
field was mostly northwards for the remainder of the day. Early on February
2 solar wind speed has decreased to below 600 km/sec.
The prevailing belief at the time of the investigation was that lightning,
including sprites, could not form without a nearby storm or stormclouds. It was
later revealed that this is not the case, ironically from data taken
earlier on in the ill-fated mission but not analysed until well after the
investigation, in a paper titled "Space shuttle observation of an unusual
transient atmospheric emission" Yoav Yair et al and published
in Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 32, L02801, doi:10.1029/2004GL021551,
 We report an observation of an unusual transient luminous event
(TLE) detected in the near IR, south of Madagascar above the Indian
Ocean. The event was imaged from the space shuttle Columbia during
the MEIDEX sprite campaign [Yair et al., 2004]. It was delayed 0.23
seconds from a preceding visual lightning flash which was horizontally
displaced >1000 km from the event. The calculated brightness in the 860
(±50) nm filter was ~310 ± 30 kR, and the morphology of the emitting
volume did not resemble any known class of TLE (i.e., sprites, ELVES
or halos). This TIGER event (Transient Ionospheric Glow Emission in
Red) may constitute a new class of TLE, not necessarily induced by a
near-by thunderstorm. We discuss possible generation mechanisms,
including the conjugate sprite hypothesis caused by lightning at
the magnetic mirror point, lightning-induced electron precipitation
and an extraterrestrial source, meteoric or cometary.
 Here we report the detection of an unusual transient emission
with a peculiar morphology. Shuttle-related sources for this event
had been ruled out based on the mission operations time-line. The
shuttle glow phenomenon [Murad, 1998] was also ruled out based on
the physical detachment of the emission from the surfaces of the
orbiter and its very short duration.
 The new observation reported here presents a unique deviation
from the prevalent attributes of CG lightning-TLE relations and
may possibly be a new type of TLE. We shall refer to it as TIGER
(Transient Ionospheric Glow Emission in Red) for it bears little
morphological resemblance to the known forms of sprites, haloes
or ELVES, and is also very different from the typical luminosity
pattern of cloud-diffused lightning light, which often has an
elliptical shape and lasts several tens of ms.
The brief luminosity of the TLE as observed above the Indian
Ocean, east of the main storm system.
Based on the assumption that the event occurred at an altitude of ~100 km,
the computed range from the shuttle is ~520 km,
more than 700 km from near-by thunderstorms. [Emphasis added]
Image credit: MEIDEX/ISA/NASA [Figure 4.g.1
 An extraterrestrial source for this emission is one possibility
that should be considered. Meteor trails were observed by the MEIDEX
camera during orbit 87 on January 22nd, 2003 over Africa [Yair et
al., 2004]. Although most meteors start ablating in the atmosphere
at heights around 110–115 km, there are also other reports of unusually
high altitude emission from meteors [Fujiwara et al., 1998].
Another article by Cramer in 2005 titled
Blue Yonder" also looks at this TIGER event, and notes
particularly the "corkscrew" shape apparent in both Goldie's image
and albeit very faintly in the TIGER event recorded by the shuttle.
New information in January 2005 based on the research of STS-107 (astronaut
Ilan Ramon's experiments) shows a new form of high altitude lightning with
no thundercloud activity called "TIGER" (Transient Ionospheric Glow Emission
in Red). The reason the experts and CAIB dismissed the San Francisco (corkscrew
Lightning) photo was the lack of thunderclouds in the region and no other
objective examples of this new form of lightning. My review of the TIGER
event shows a similar pattern to the San Francisco photo - no thunderclouds
in the region and a corkscrew bolt. I have included the photos below of both
the TIGER and the Hyper Lightning, a name I have given to the San Francisco
bolt (Hyper-Lightning would be an artificially induced TIGER event which strikes
a hypersonic vehicle without leaving detectable low-frequency sound waves -
infrasound). I initially thought the term Hobbit would do but the term had
little to do with the anomaly.
The TIGER event also has a corkscrew behind it, difficult to see but it's
there (I did some enhancement on the entire picture to better show the
corkscrew) which starts right under the T in the word TIGER and travels
left to right. Air Ions charges do corkscrew with altitude as per my
research in the Southern Hemisphere Study 1990.
The "terminator" is a name given to the "line" where
night meets day, and day meets night. Obviously it's location on the
globe changes as the Earth rotates. There is significant evidence that
the terminator would be more likely to attract electrical activity than
other areas of the globe at any given time. Space Shuttle Columbia crossed
the terminator at around the time the Goldie image was taken.
Using a tool
from John Walker's fourmilab site, Cramer generated this
"view" of Earth at the time of Columbia's reentry.
Earth as the daylight-darkness would have appeared at 2003/02/01 13:52:00 UTC Credit: Guy Cramer/fourmilab [Figure 4.h.1
The following paragraphs
(12[Scroll down to #25 - Electric Currents
from Space]) make reference to large sheets of electric current
running through the morning side and evening side of the ionosphere, a
region the shuttle was just passing through.
In 1973 the navy satellite Triad flew through the auroral zone
region in a low-altitude orbit, its magnetometer indeed detected
the signatures of two large sheets of electric current, one coming
down on the morning side of the auroral zone, one going up on the
evening side, as expected. Because Kristian Birkeland had proposed
long before currents which linked Earth and space in this fashion,
they were named Birkeland currents (by Schield,
Dessler and Freeman, in a 1969 article predicting some of the
features observed by Triad). Typically, each sheet carries a
million amperes or more.
But that wasn't all. Equatorward of each current sheet, Triad noted
a parallel sheet almost as intense, flowing in the opposite
direction: those field lines were no longer open, but closed inside
the magnetosphere. It thus seemed that most of the electric current
coming down from space (about 80%) did not choose
to close through the ionosphere across the magnetic poles. Rather,
it found an alternate way: it flowed in the ionosphere a few hundred
miles equatorward and then headed out again to space, where the
currents (presumably) found an easier path.
Further information Steven [Schwartz,
former MIT research scientist]
collected was on Auroral Activity Estimates
from a series of NOAA satellites that orbit Earth between the North
and South Poles. These Satellites can only monitor these Aurora when
flying past the North or South polar regions so the data is only
sporadically given every few minutes. The information shows the
Auroral Activity Estimates for Northern Hemispheric power at 1345
UT = 8:45 AM EST was at 55 gigawatts (level 8) just prior to the
Shuttle problems, average expected levels are 12 gigawatts (level 5).
This information may confirm that the dawn current sheet had indeed
extended southward to the Shuttle location, or close enough for a
discharge to take place between the million amperes or more current
sheet and the shuttle.
Not only is the terminator an
ideal place to find electric currents in the ionosphere, when combined with it crossing
a coastline the significance of this fact increases with regard to the
In 1998 it was reported by Professor Louis Frank and colleagues from the
University of Iowa that auroras mysteriously show a tendency to hug
coastlines. They write, “coastline arcs can be as thin as tens
of miles, align along coastlines for several hundred miles, and last
several minutes. The phenomenon normally occurs during the early phase
of an auroral storm. Though scientists cannot yet explain why this
coastline effect occurs, part of the answer seems to lie in the knowledge
that ground currents are much greater off shore because sea water is a
better conductor of electricity than the land.” “It would
appear,” notes Frank, “that at certain times the ionosphere
is primed for the generation of the thin arcs over the coastlines and
that the arcs are tickled into brightening by the magnetic or electric
fields from the ground currents. This is quite remarkable because these
auroral lights are occurring at altitudes of 60 to 200 miles above the
This discovery indicates the possibility that a high altitude discharge
could have been triggered near the U.S. coastline by a rare combination
In 2007 NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center published a
in which THEMIS had identified a huge electric current flowing to
Earth from the Sun.
Flux Ropes Power the Magnetosphere!:
THEMIS discovered a flux rope pumping a 650,000 Amp current into the Arctic. [Emphasis added]
Sibeck/NASA/GSFC [Figure 4.i.1
“The satellites have found evidence of magnetic ropes
connecting Earth's upper atmosphere directly to the sun,”
said David Sibeck, project scientist for the mission at NASA's
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. “We believe
that solar wind particles flow in along these ropes, providing
energy for geomagnetic storms and auroras.”
A magnetic rope is a twisted bundle of magnetic fields organized much like the twisted
hemp of a mariner's rope. Spacecraft have detected hints of these ropes before, but a
single spacecraft was insufficient to map their 3D structure. THEMIS' five identical
micro-satellites were able to perform the feat.
“THEMIS encountered its first magnetic rope on May 20,”
said Sibeck. “It was very large, about as wide as Earth, and
located approximately 40,000 miles (70,000 km) above Earth's surface
in a region called the magnetopause.” The magnetopause is where
the solar wind and Earth's magnetic field meet and push against one
another like sumo wrestlers locked in combat. There, the rope formed
and unraveled in just a few minutes, providing a brief but significant
conduit for solar wind energy.
THEMIS also has observed a number of small explosions in Earth's
magnetic bow shock. “The bow shock is like the bow wave in
front of a boat,” explained Sibeck. “It is where the
solar wind first feels the effects of Earth's magnetic field.
Sometimes a burst of electrical current within the solar wind will
hit the bow shock and—Bang! We get an explosion.”
The "magnetic flux ropes" have been directly characterized
as a 650,000 Amp current. We agree wholeheartedly that these features
should be referred to in explicitly electrical terms.
As mentioned above, electrical currents in plasma will tend to adopt
a filamentary structure, as demonstrated by your garden-variety plasma
lamp available at most novelty stores. Those filaments may also be
composed of sub-filaments, and so on. Thus the description of the
"flux ropes" (a 650,000 Amp current flowing between the
sun and the Earth) as being braided like the hemp of a mariner's
rope appears to be perfectly apt and, moreover, expected under an
Lightning Interacts with Space, Electrons Rain Down
Energetic byproducts of lightning known as whistler waves streak
thousands of miles above Earth's atmosphere into the magnetosphere,
where they engage in a near-space dalliance that could be called
the electron shuffle.
The whistler waves interact with already gyrating electrons, then
fling them off onto new paths. Some of the electrons rain back into
the atmosphere a mere second later and a thousand miles away.
Johnson explained that energy from lightning moves in all directions.
A small portion, traveling as whistler waves, heads into the
magnetosphere, where invisible lines of radiation run from one
of the planet's magnetic poles to the other.
Meanwhile, the sun spews a constant stream of energy our way.
These charged particles, including electrons, are known as the
solar wind. The electrons become trapped in the magnetosphere's
lines of radiation, a nifty feature that helps protect the planet.
There, they bounce back and forth between the north and south magnetic
The energy of the whistler waves, Johnson says, is able to
interact with these trapped electrons, an effect that may extend
15,000 miles or more above Earth.
Granted this is not regular lightning per se, but it is none the less
strong evidence of Earth-space-solar electrical interactions. In fact, we
really know so little about our own terrestrial lightning that we ought not
discount the possibility that terrestrial weather could have a lot more to do with space
weather than previously thought.
Dr. Joseph Dwyer, an expert in lightning research at the Florida
Institute of Technology, was one of the first to discover that lightning is
not produced nor
triggered via the mechanisms thought for so many years.
[At the link above, under "Choose a
month and year to view:" choose "November" and
"2003" and click "Submit"]
November 06, 2003 : Thunderstorm Research Shocks Conventional Theories
- If Joseph Dwyer, Florida Tech associate professor of physics,
is right, then a lot of what we thought we knew about thunderstorms
and lightning is probably wrong.
In the latest issue of Geophysical Research Letters , the
National Science Foundation CAREER Award winner caps two years
of lightning research with a startling conclusion: The conditions
inside thunderstorms that were long thought necessary to produce
lightning actually do not exist in nature.
“For generations, we've believed that in order to produce
a lightning discharge, the electric fields inside storms must be
very big, similar to the fields that cause you to be shocked when
you touch a metal doorknob,” said Dwyer.
The problem is scientists have searched inside thunderstorms for
many years, looking for these large electric fields, only to come
up empty handed. Some researchers have suggested that maybe we
haven't been looking hard enough; maybe the big electric fields
are really there, but they were somehow just missed. Now, Dwyer's
new theory shows that these searches were actually in vain;
super-sized fields simply don't exist, period.
“What we've discovered is a new limit in nature. Just as
a bucket can only hold so much water, the atmosphere can only
hold a certain sized electric field. Beyond that, the electric
field is stunted by the rapid creation of gamma-rays and a form
of anti-matter called positrons,” he said.
While Dwyer's research shows that lightning is not produced by
large, unseen electric fields inside storms, the triggering
mechanism remains a mystery. “Although everyone is familiar
with lightning, we still don't know much about how it really
works,” said Dwyer.
Could it be that due to dogma researchers have been looking in the
wrong place for their answers? Perhaps it is time to seriously consider
an alternative, such as is
by Wal Thornhill:
Meteorologists have a major problem. They acknowledge that the Earth's
atmosphere acts like a leaky, self-repairing capacitor (condensor).
However, they assume that this spherical capacitor is charged from
within by thunderstorm activity because they have been told that the
Earth is an uncharged body flying through an uncharged solar wind.
But it has never been shown precisely how the thunderstorm charging
process works. And it cannot explain the recent discoveries of strange
discharge phenomena above thunderstorms, stretching up into space.
The electric universe model argues that the solar system is not
electrically "dead." The Sun, like all stars, is a focus
for a galactic discharge. Earth is a charged body that continually
transfers charge from space to maintain equilibrium with the solar
electrical environment. Thunderstorms are generated by a breakdown
of the insulating layer of atmosphere between the Earth's surface
and the ionosphere. Leakage currents CAUSE the vertical winds in a
thunderstorm and the charge build-up in the cloud. Occasionally, a
bolt of megalightning streaks from the top of a large storm instead
of its base. This 10-kilometres-high short-circuit throws the switch
for a further powerful discharge to the ionosphere. The result is a
towering diffuse discharge at very high altitudes - a "red
sprite" or "blue jet."
Bering's results-some of which he presented at the
recent American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco-turns
sprite theory on its head. “The charge that produces
sprites is not below in the cloud, it's in the mesosphere itself,”
suggests Bering. So now there are new puzzles: where could this
charge be coming from, and if there's no QE
[quasi-electrostatic] field, what
causes the delay between lightning and sprite? “We have a problem
understanding why the sprite takes so long to form,” admits
James Benbrook, a colleague of Bering's in the physics
department at the University of Houston.
Most sprite investigators agree that Bering should have
been able to detect the low-frequency hum, and blame his instruments
for failing to do so. Bering defends the quality of his
experiment and insists his instruments were working. “We
wouldn't have seen the electric signal of the sprite if they weren't.”
Can the QE field theory recover from this blow? “My personal
guess is no,” says Bering. “None of the existing
models will survive when people finally pay attention to what our
data actually says.”
Birkeland was the good guy in a 50-year dispute involving the idea
that electrons streaming along magnetic field lines caused the Earth's
auroras. His opponent was the astronomer Sydney Chapman who maintained
that the Earth moved through a vacuum. In 1974 space probes found in
Birkeland's favour. Chapman and others then promptly made space plasma
superconducting, which relieved them from the complications of dealing
with electric fields. Birkeland actually demonstrated his theory long
before in an experiment called a "terrella." It consisted of
an electromagnet contained within a sphere and placed in a large vacuum
chamber. By initiating an electric discharge in the chamber he was able
to reproduce a light show with many of the odd features of auroras.
The importance of this simple experiment cannot be overstated
because it demonstrates that aurorae and lightning seem to require an
electrical power source external to the Earth! That would explain the
puzzle raised by Bering: “The charge that produces sprites is
not below in the cloud, it's in the mesosphere itself.”
The Electric Universe model suggests that the Earth plays a cathode
role in the Sun's discharge and therefore is in the business of
supplying negative electrons to space and receiving positive ions
from the solar wind. It is interesting therefore that the presence
of solar wind ions inside the earth's magnetosphere has puzzled
scientists. Thunderstorms are not electricity generators, they are
passive elements in an interplanetary circuit, like a self-repairing
leaky condenser. The energy stored in the cloud "condenser"
is released as lightning when it short-circuits. The short-circuits
can occur either within the cloud or across the external resistive
paths to Earth or the ionosphere. The charge across the cloud
"condenser" gives rise to violent vertical electrical
winds within the cloud, not vice versa. By creating a short-circuit
to high altitudes in the storm the lightning effectively "throws
the switch" connected to the glow discharge "tube" in
the upper atmosphere. It then makes perfect sense that the much taller
positive cloud-to-ground discharge will be more effective at providing
power to the glow discharge than will low-level negative cloud-to-ground
lightning because the circuit resistance is lower. Ultimately, lightning
on Earth is driven by electric power focused on the Sun but minutely
intercepted by the Earth. So lightning on Earth is a pale imitation
of what is happening on the Sun.
On 14th November 1999 Space.com
the story of Apollo 12's close brush with lightning 30 years previous:
Apollo 12's Stormy Beginning
Thirty seconds after liftoff, Conrad saw a bright flash through his
window. Seconds later, he and his crewmates heard the wail of the
master alarm in their headphones. When he glanced at the instrument
panel, Conrad saw more warning lights than he'd ever encountered in
any simulation on Earth. Something was very wrong with the spacecraft's
What no one had yet realized was that Apollo 12 had been struck by
lightning. As the Saturn booster sped through rain clouds, it had
become the world's longest lightning rod. A bolt of electricity
had struck the spacecraft and traveled all the way to the ground, 6,000
feet below, along the column of hot, charged gases of the Saturn's exhaust
plume. The bolt had knocked Yankee Clipper's power-producing fuel
cells off line, and had even jolted the command module's navigation system.
No Apollo mission had ever been aborted -- was Apollo 12 about to become the first?
This is just one example of terrestrial lightning following a contrail, but
meteors have also been known to trigger sprites high in the atmosphere, at
the edge of space, as
Thornhill in 2005:
It has been discovered that meteors can trigger sprites. Meteors leave
an electrically conducting trail, like a lightning rod, from the ionosphere
into the lower atmosphere. A spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere creates
a similar ionized trail.
The possibility that Columbia acted as a lightning rod was raised BEFORE
publication of Goldie's image, by weather expert Walt Lyons as noted above in the
Initial Media Reports section:
As the space shuttle streaks through the upper atmosphere, it leaves a
wake in the air just as a boat leaves a wake behind it in the water.
The shuttle's wake becomes electrified. Lyons says some scientists
are speculating that its electrified wake acted as an antenna
and drew a blue jet to the Columbia. [Emphasis added]
NASA and the Air Force have been losing interest in studying the uppermost
atmosphere. Meanwhile, Lyons says scientists are still discovering
unexplained phenomenon. "We're nickel-and-diming to do our
research," he says. "And there is all sorts of
electrical foolishness going on up there that we still don't know
anything about." [Emphasis added]
More from the documentary Megalightning:
(Narrator) Among the first images made public from Columbia's lightning hunt
was a meteor reentry, apparently sparking a bolt of giant lightning.
Sprite apparently triggered by a meteor
Credit: dmptv/NASA/Yoav Yair
(Yoav Yair) On the night of January 22nd, note this first meteor coming,
a second one come from ... we see lightning below the horizon, and this
is the sprite.
The foam strike discussed in the first section of this paper clearly
did happen, and when viewed in conjunction with the reentry data it is
obvious that the damage caused by the foam strike was having a significant
effect on the shuttle as it reentered the Earth's atmosphere and began
heating due to the drag friction involved. The numerous "out of
family" readings from the left-wing sensors are testament to this.
It is equally obvious that the anomalous photograph taken by Peter Goldie
was taken at about the time of Communications event 10. What cannot be
stated for certain is that the anomaly is an electrical discharge, though
this author is of the opinion that it was not caused by camera shake, which
leaves few explanations other than an electrical discharge event.
It appears that the main reason for discounting megalightning is that there
was no storm in the vicinity, which on the surface sounds reasonable. But as
Walt Lyons and other commentators note, not everything which could be known
about the ionosphere is yet known. This was further borne out by the 2005
Yair paper mentioned in the Space Weather section.
As more research is conducted into Earth's electrical circuitry, more phenomena
are discovered which were not even conceived of before. Recently
we have even seen that the Earth is "connected" electrically to the
Sun, so to discount an as yet unknown form of electrical atmospheric discharge
is somewhat short-sighted.
We also must keep in mind that the plasma trail left by the shuttle is
an ionised path, a good conductor of electrical energy. If as the reentry
data suggests, there was any melting or sublimation of metal components, this would
add to the ionization and the conductivity of the plasma trail, and would
attract any discharge to the part which was already damaged, and likely increase
the damage significantly.
There are many descriptions one can find of a rocket being likened to a giant
lightning rod, especially the ionized contrail thereof. With the
discovery of a meteor triggering a sprite, and with scientists and weather specialists willing to
consider the possibility of the Shuttle acting as a huge lightning rod,
we have no reason to dismiss the possibility out of hand.
As Columbia crossed the coast of California, it also crossed the "terminator"
and at the same time a rare solar shockwave had reached the same area of the ionosphere. All
of these coincidental events can have an effect on the possibility of an electrical
discharge to the contrail occurring.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board seemed to
not have the expertise to evaluate the space weather conditions carefully enough to
rule out space weather as a contributing factor to the accident.
These conclusions are those of this author alone, and do not
constitute the views of any organization or body.
The foam strike on launch as found by the CAIB happened as stated,
and caused enough damage to significantly affect Columbia on reentry.
Columbia reentered Earth's atmosphere under an unusual set of
circumstances which together could have contributed to a high-energy electrical
discharge (or a number of discharges) to the orbiter as it crossed the California coast.
The CAIB did not sufficiently investigate the anomalous photo (by Goldie)
or the space weather conditions to draw the conclusion that the anomaly in the image was
caused by camera shake.
It is highly likely that the Goldie image did capture an as yet unknown
type of electrical discharge to the orbiter, possibly a TIGER or similar discharge.
It is likely this discharge caused more damage to the orbiter than
the foam strike and friction of reentry alone would have inflicted, and may well
have contributed to the Shuttle's demise.
The images Goldie took of the Shuttle reentry should be made
available for public scrutiny or at least for independent analysis.
The CAIB should re-convene a group to further investigate
these assertions in the interests of future mission and public safety.
Should any other researchers find this study or these conclusions of interest
and be able to offer further comment either in support or in contradiction of
my findings I am open to further discussion in this regard.
Initial contact should be made via email by clicking
Even with all thrusters firing, combined with a maximum rate of change of
aileron trim, the flight control system was unable to control the
left yaw, and control of the Orbiter was lost at EI+970 seconds.
Mission Control lost all telemetry data from the Orbiter at EI+923
(8:59:32 a.m.). Civilian and military video cameras on the ground
documented the final breakup. The Modular Auxiliary Data System
stopped recording at EI+970 seconds.
With deepest respect
Sunrise from STS-107 on Flight Day 3 [Figure 5.c.1
As a matter of public record I would like it known that the entire study above is
my own work, and does not constitute the opinion of nor represent any affiliation
I have with any groups either mentioned therein or not.
I am involved in a voluntary capacity for the Thunderbolts Project, as Managing
Editor of their Thunderblogs and administration of some other facets of their web
presence. This study however is completely independent of any association I have
with the Thunderbolts Project or anyone else associated with same.
This site is dedicated to the memory of my brother
Carl Smith, who passed away on
24th June 2009, after an arduous battle with cancer.
It was Carl who, less than two and a half years ago inspired me to take a closer
look into astrophysics and climate than I had previously. It was a conversation
about the Columbia disaster and the anomalous image which dominated that exchange
of thoughts, and which ultimately led me to conduct my own study into this tragedy.
May he rest in peace. No more pain.
Copies of this study in pdf format can be downloaded