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Could an Electrical Phenomenon Have Caused the Columbia Disaster?

YOWUSA.COM, 24-February-03
Steve Russell

plasma-like substance seen through shuttle window

Dec. 7, 1996, a plasma-like substance formed from ionized oxygen atoms is visible through the upper window of the space shuttle Columbia during re-entry..

Many theories have been debated in the mainstream media, fuelled by several video clips of falling debris during the launch and final break-up events.  A black and white military photo showing a potentially damaged wing, transcripts of communications, and timeline summaries of events.  However, one theory that proposes strange electrical phenomenon as a possible root cause is not getting the attention it deserves. 

Could it be that NASA is choosing to force silence on this possibility even though it was warned of this potential danger years ago? Consider this, forced to struggle with ever dwindling budgets, this area of research may have been intentionally limited or ignored by cash-strapped policy wonks before the real dangers could be quantified!

Space Shuttle ColumbiaPrior to the Columbia disaster, this phenomena was scheduled to be studied in 2006 with the launch of the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) satellite. However, since this phenomena did reappear prior to the crash of the Columbia, can we allow NASA (and these same policy wonks) to control the accident inquiry, so as to suppress an immediate investigation of this phenomena?

YOWUSA believes that failed NASA policy wonks must not be allowed to meddle with this accident inquiry and that this theory deserves urgent attention.  It may not only be critical in understanding what happened to Columbia, but to future safety of other shuttle missions.  For this reason, this article presents the evidence available for this theory in the public domain.  

The Photographs

The theory that an electrical phenomenon was the cause of this disaster was born from initial reports of a photograph that an amateur photographer took in the San Francisco area.  For YOWUSA, this was the most interesting report during the whole Columbia media storm.

SFGate.com, February 5, 2003
Mysterious purple streak is shown hitting Columbia 7 minutes before it disintegrated

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, and then fades.

SFGate.com, February 2, 2003
Photos show odd images near shuttle

They show a bright scraggly flash of orange light, tinged with pale purple, and shaped somewhat like a deformed L.  The flash appears to cross the Columbia's dim contrail, and at that precise point, the contrail abruptly brightens and appears thicker and somewhat twisted as if it were wobbling.

The photographer tried contacting NASA through their published hot lines without success and had to resort to contacting a relative who attends the same church as a former astronaut to get in touch with them.  Despite NASA obviously being extremely busy gathering and chasing down leads in their investigation, their reaction to the news of these photographs was astounding.

After several conversations with NASA in the afternoon, by dinnertime, the photographer was suddenly playing host to veteran shuttle mission specialist Tammy Jernigan, an astronaut with significant credentials.

World Net Daily, February 5, 2003
NASA probes ‘electric zap' mystery photo

According to her NASA biography, Jernigan graduated from Stanford in 1981 with a bachelor's degree in physics.  She went on to earn master's degrees in engineering science and astronomy from Stanford and UC-Berkeley respectively.  She also holds a doctorate in space physics and astronomy from Rice University.

NASA T-38 jetsHer initial reaction to the photographs was "WOW", and moments later the photographer was handed a receipt and his camera was on its way to Houston on a NASA T-38 jet for further analysis.

This amazingly swift response had everyone reporting on NASA's enthusiasm and willingness to explore every avenue in their investigations. However, the photographer's ongoing requests to remain anonymous and unwillingness to release the image to the public raised a few eyebrows at YOWUSA and we decided to monitor this lead very closely.

Our initial instincts that an electrical phenomenon was the primary cause were quickly strengthened as our investigation continued. We soon learned that strange electrical phenomena had been observed on the shuttle only days before the tragedy.

The Shuttle Research

Less than a week into their mission, astronauts were videotaping thunderstorms over Africa as part of the Mediterranean Israeli Dust Experiment (MEIDEX), and stumbled upon what could very well be a completely new undiscovered electrical phenomenon in the upper atmosphere.

Reuters, January 23, 2003
Space Shuttle Astronauts Videotape New Arc of Light

"We saw a huge horizontal line of air glow which has been brightened by lightning below it which extended to several hundred miles horizontally and we feel it may be something new," said Dr. Yoav Yair.

Yair, project coordinator for Israeli experiments on board the Columbia in its current mission, said analysis would attempt over the next few weeks to confirm scientists' initial impression that the glow is neither a sprite nor an elf, two other electrical phenomena associated with thunderstorms.

"It seems that the atmosphere still holds surprises for us," Yair said.

"But if you understand the global electrical circuit, and if you want to fly certain high flying aircraft or even satellites or if you want to move things through this layer of atmosphere then you have to know really well what's going on up there in terms of electricity." Yair said.

Such signs of undiscovered phenomena and sentiments of astronauts like Yair characterise the significance of how important this information could be in determining the cause of Columbia's break up.

horizontal line of air glowOne possible explanation for the "huge horizontal line of air glow" is a type of little understood and potentially dangerous cloud known as "Noctilucent" clouds (NLC's).  These clouds exist in the mesosphere at approximately 50-85 km, the exact altitude range at which the first signs of trouble were noticed during re-entry.  The clouds are essentially ice crystals formed from water molecules and dust.  How enough dust is able to reach these altitudes is somewhat of a mystery but is theorised that particles from comets and meteors may be responsible.  Overall, information on these clouds is extremely sketchy, but could pose a significant risk to shuttles. 

MSNBC, February 10, 2003
Shuttle mystery in the ‘ignorosphere'

"We're discovering the middle atmosphere has got a lot of electrical phenomena," said Walt Lyons, president of the FMA Research in Fort Collins, Colo.  "The key message here is that there may be more things going on up there that we just don't understand or have no inkling of yet."

The 2002 report by Kennedy Space Center researchers also noted some risk from "noctilucent" clouds, which are the highest clouds in the atmosphere.  During hypersonic flight, ice crystals in the clouds could pose a corrosion or abrasion hazard to shuttles and "certainly" increase drag.

"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," the report said.  "Depending on the particle size, sufficient damage could be done to result in loss of vehicle."

"The research we've been able to do has made us realize it's even weirder than we thought," Lyons said.  "There may be other things that happen up there that we just don't know about.  Maybe we just encountered a new phenomenon the hard way."

NASA seems to be so concerned about the potential problems these clouds pose, that it has scheduled a launch for 2006 to study this exact phenomenon with a satellite called the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM).

Science@NASA, February 18, 2003
Strange Clouds

AIM will take wide angle photos of NLCs, measure their temperatures and chemical abundances, monitor dusty aerosols, and count meteoroids raining down on Earth.  "For the first time we'll be able to monitor all the crucial factors at once."

Noctilucent clouds are not the only upper atmospheric phenomena about which NASA has received warnings before.

Sprites and Elves

Cosmic boltIt turns out that FMA Research Inc in Fort Collins, Colorado, warned NASA 10 years ago about a phenomenon known as sprites.

SFGate.com, February 7, 2003
Cosmic bolt probed in shuttle disaster
Scientists poring over ‘infrasonic' sound waves

For some time, scientists have speculated on whether these events could endanger airliners or returning spacecraft.

A study conducted 10 years ago for NASA found that there is a 1-in-100 chance that a space shuttle could fly through a sprite, although it concluded that the consequences of such an event were unclear.

The above estimate of 1-in-100 for a shuttle to fly through one of these sprites is uncannily close to the current statistic of 112 shuttle launches since the first in April 1981.  Perhaps we have just learnt what the exact consequences could be for a shuttle flying through such electrical phenomena.

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