Monday, February 3, 2003
Breakup may have begun above California
Caltech astronomer noted 'debris shedding' as Columbia passed overhead
...Top NASA officials appealed for photographs or video evidence from amateur sky-watchers on the West Coast, after confirming they had received detailed written descriptions from a Caltech radio astronomer who said he saw what appeared to be "debris shedding from the orbiter" as it streaked over the eastern Sierra.
Radio-astronomer Anthony Beasley, of Caltech's Owens Valley Radio Observatory, told The Chronicle the shuttle had "a sparkle effect" as it passed overhead, and then he saw a bright piece separate. "It was like it dropped a flare, and kept going," he said.
The shuttle's passage over California at 5:53 a.m. PST Saturday coincided with the first indications of trouble onboard, when a bank of sensors on the trailing edge of the left wing blinked out. Five minutes later, streaking above New Mexico, the shuttle itself began to dip slightly to the left, suggesting a higher turbulence on that side of the vehicle -- which could have been caused by damaged or missing heat-shielding tiles.
Columbia broke apart 1 minute later...
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...And a San Francisco amateur astronomer has shown The Chronicle -- but not released publicly -- a photograph of a vivid, lightning-like discharge apparently crossing through the contrail's left side. The image is one of five snapped in sequence at 5:53 a.m., when the shuttle's sensors began to fail.