The Cosmic Mirror
By Daniel Fischer
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Current mission news: MGS (latest pictures!) + Cassini + Stardust

Even better show ahead for SOHO comet watchers?
When comet Kudo-Fujikawa came close to the Sun in late January, it didn't become really impressive - but comet NEAT may or may not in the 3rd week of February: SOHO's current images, on C/2002 V1 (NEAT) SC, CCNet (item 6) and FG Kometen analysis and of C/2002 X5 (K-F) a SOHO Pick of the Week, S&T, APOD, SC, the view on Jan. 28, the orbit in 3D and an FGK analysis.
Update # 248 of Sunday, February 9, 2003
Loss of Columbia still unexplained / Artemis reaches target orbit / SORCE launched

Columbia investigation limps along with no hot leads

Large fragment of one wing found / long-range image inconclusive / "final" report within 60 days?

One week after the Columbia tragedy, more potentially important debris has been found and additional high-resolution images of the orbiter during reentry have surfaced, but no leading theory on the accident has emerged so far. Still the charter of the investigation board has been revised with the specification that a final written report should be produced within 60 days, in a time far shorter than during a typical airliner crash study. Here then are the latest discoveries:
  • The North American Aerospace Defense Command which tracks orbiting satellites and space debris with radar had recorded an object receding quickly from Columbia about a day after launch - it could have been anything from space debris to a small meteoroid to a piece of the shuttle that had dislodged, or it was nothing more than ice formed by discharged wastewater.

  • A substantial fragment of one wing, measuring some 60 cm, has been found near Forth Worth, but it is still unclear whether it is the left one where the fatal chain of events has apparently begun. Since all heat tiles are numbered it should be known soon which wing it is.

  • A high-resolution image of Columbia that shows a deformation of the left wing plus apparent smoke behind it has been delivered to NASA by a military installation in New Mexico that took it one minute before loss of contact - but the impressive effects could also be blurring of the image by air turbulence; NASA is thus skeptical that the image will tell us much.

  • None of the apparent shuttle debris west of Texas and Louisiana - where the main mass of Columbia came down - has been identified as real so far; NASA has received hundreds of reports from California, Arizona and New Mexico, though, and only a fraction has been followed up.

  • Contrary to earlier impressions there are no "32 seconds of data" available after the loss of voice communication: "It's really not 32 seconds, it's a blip of one second that happens 31 or 32 seconds after the loss of communications," a NASA manager explained on Feb. 8 - and nothing has been learned from it so far.
NASA managers are increasingly frustrated by the slow progress of the investigation, and the daily news briefings on the often erratic developments are coming to an end. Meanwhile in some circles the Columbia tragedy is taken as an argument against the launches of the two Mars Rovers this spring: They each carry minute loads of Plutonium as heaters - which, according to NASA's own environmental impact statement, have a probability of 1:230 to be released in case of an accident. And the chance of the Delta 2 rockets failing on launch are given as 1:30.

Posted late on Feb. 5

Columbia mystery still wide open - launch incident not the cause

Contrary to many media reports earlier this week, the investigation is anything but over, and the now-famous launch incident with the piece of insulating foam breaking off the external tank and hitting the orbiter was in all likelyhood not the cause of the disaster on Feb. 1. The fragment just was not heavy enough to cause severe damage to the wing or its heat tiles - and there are actual long-range photographs of the wing underside before and after the foam hit, showing no difference in appearance whatsoever. This, plus extensive analysis of the incident itself (see below), have led shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore to the conclusion: »Right now it just does not make sense to us that a piece of debris would be the root cause for the loss of Columbia and its crew. There's got to be another reason.«

There had been speculation that the foam fragment might have contained ice and was therefore much heavier than the assumed 1.2 kg - but ice is now thought to be an unlikely factor as the weather was not cold enough and the ice team did a very thorough search before launch. NASA's working hypothesis is now that something else hit the orbiter at an unknown time between launch and reentry, damaging it so that it started to disintegrate on first contact with the atmosphere. It could even have been space debris or a meteoroid. In any case there are now amateur video tapes available of Columbia's flight over California and Arizona that already show bright objects coming off the orbiter now and then - and there are (yet unconfirmed) reports of small debris having been found in CA, AZ and NM (while more and more big fragments have been found in TX).

And so the detective work is continuing at full steam, 24 hours a day, hunting for at least one crucial »missing link« in the chain of fatal events. As made clear by Dittemore and others during further news briefings from Feb. 2 to 5,
  • NASA had studied the impact of the foam fragment onto the orbiter very seriously over many days after launch and had any reason to believe that the incident was harmless. Even the worst-case scenarios identified by a model known to be pessimistic would not have caused fatal structural damage.

  • There are now measurements by five idependent sensors showing a temperature rise in different areas of Columbia's left side of 20 to 30 degrees C over 5 minutes prior to the loss of signal; the first indication of rising temperatures is now seen already at 13:52 UTC, taking place in the wheel well of the left main landing gear.

  • But if there had been a breach of the orbiter's thermal protection, i.e. of the famous heat tiles, the temperatures would have shot upwards much more dramatically: Thus the modest - but fast - temperature increase »is reflecting something else [...], some other event, some other missing link« that is ultimately responsible for the disaster.

  • That event hasn't been identified from the telemetry yet but may have left tell-tale traces in the debris; nothing of significance for the investigation has been seen in the Columbia fragments collected so far, though. The debris field has turned out to be larger than first thought and seems to start much farther west. About 12'000 fragments have already been found.

  • Immediately before contact to the orbiter was lost, the left wing must have experienced increasing drag, because both the aileron and elevons started to move (as controlled by Columbia's computer) - and two of the four yaw jets began to fire. Those actions, however, lost ground to the unusual rate of change in the drag (the absolute value of which was not dramatic). Missing or damaged tiles may have caused the excess drag.
Even after the loss of voice contact, there were still 32 seconds of weak and »ratty« telemetry coming from the orbiter, which may contain crucial information. Retrieving it has turned out to be very hard, and so experts are actually travelling to the ground station of the TDRSS satellite in White Sands through which Columbia was communicating during descent to look at the first-generation recording of these very final transmissions. And all that's being found is shared with the public right away, just as promised by Dittemore (»you've got everything I know«) and other NASA managers that are calling this the most open investigation ever of a major disaster (and many space media veterans concur).

For example, we know now in detail how NASA handled the launch incident (even the internal protocols have been made available): It was discovered on Jan. 17, the day after launch, studied for days and reported to the mission management on Jan. 24 and 27. Near the forward bipod - where the orbiter is mounted to the ET - a foam fragment of 50 x 40 x 15 cm with a mass of 1.2 kg had broken off and struck the underside of Columbia and the left wing at a very glancing angle (10 to 16°), shattering into a cloud of particles in the process. The size parameters were derived from a hi-res movie and calibrated with photographs of a similar incident during the launch of STS- 112 where the hole in the ET insulation had actually been photographed by the astronauts.

Using a computer model known to overpredict damage from impacts, two worst case outcomes of the impact had then been identified: The foam fragment could either have knocked out a single heat tile completely or damaged a number of them partially, over a zone of 80 x 18 x 5 cm. In both cases localized heating would have occurred, causing modest structural damage - but nothing sufficient to cause the disaster or even to affect the flying quality of the vehicle. Consequently there was no cause for alarm, though the incident was discussed with the media on Jan. 31. »We have no concerns whatsoever,« entry flight director Leroy Cain had said at that time: »All of the analysis says that we have plenty of margin« and that the impact could not have been »significant enough to take out any significant amount of tile.« And remember that orbiters have returned safely in the past with entire tiles missing.

Even if there had been serious concern, nothing could have been done. Contrary what some pundits (including former astronauts!) have told various media, the STS-107 astronauts had no possibility to conduct an unscheduled EVA to inspect the belly of the orbiter for any damage. And even if they had, they could have done nothing to replace damaged heat tiles as each one has an individual shape. In-orbit repairs are also unheard of. There is also no leeway in changing the entry trajectory to reduce the heat load on one wing (because then the other one would get too hot or the orbiter would not slow down enough - the crew would have had to bail out in mid-flight). And an escape to the ISS was precluded by the different orbital inclination alone. So far nothing indicates that NASA deliberately ignored a serious safety issue here, and even the decision not to try to determine any damage telescopically (whether that worked in earlier cases is a matter of debate) seemed prudent at the time.

Posted on Feb. 2 at noon

No »smoking gun« yet in space shuttle disaster

Role of ET foam incident during launch unclear / Columbia flew perfect trajectory right until loss of contact / Crucial clues may be in widely scattered debris

Almost to the day 17 years after the Challenger disaster NASA has again lost a space shuttle orbiter and its seven-member crew - and as on Jan. 28, 1986, there were only tons of questions but no clear answers on the day of the tragedy, Feb. 1, 2003. As discussed in great detail by grief-stricken NASA managers during a news conference later that day, Columbia had followed the planned reentry trajectory perfectly and apparently also in the planned attitude right until all communication with the orbiter was suddenly lost at 13:59 UTC, 17 minutes before the planned touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. At that time Columbia was travelling with Mach 18.3 (5.6 km/s) at an altitude of 63 km, experiencing the greatest heat load of the reentry.

The only anomalies noted by mission control in the minutes before were failures of several temperature and pressure sensors in the left side of Columbia that began at 13:53 and multiplied in the following minutes. While such a clustering of malfunctions in independent sensors was unusual, it was no cause for alarm, especially since the astronauts confirmed verbally that from their point of view all was well with the orbiter - and it was during that statement that all communications with Columbia were lost, including telemetry and tracking. »[We] began to know we had a bay day,« chief flight director Milt Heflin recalled: Mission control knew no longer where the orbiter was and what was happening to it.

But numerous spectators - and TV crews - in Texas and surrounding states did: They saw Columbia first as the well-known bright star with a long plasma trail (not contrail as said in many reports) - and then suddenly splitting into a shower of bright dots with individual trails. The »ominous« picture (as CNN put it minutes later) was all too familiar: Such had looked the reentry of the Mir space station two years ago (see Update # 221). The visual drama was accompanied by loud noises - and soon thereafter a rain of debris with fragments typically one meter in size or (much) less started to fall onto the rural area. By that time a prepared emergency protocol at NASA - that all had hoped would never be needed - was already in effect.

While rescue operations were clearly hopeless this time, the recovery of the debris was the order of the day (involving a host of U.S. agencies) - as was the impounding of all available data, documents and even hardware (used to prepare Columbia for the ill-fated mission STS-107). Several investigation committees are already at work combing through the material, both by NASA and by independent experts. As there may be not much telling evidence in the telemetry, except for the chain of sensor failures, much hope is centering on the physical evidence (even though it is severely damaged and there is no impact-hardened flight data recorder like in an aircraft). And NASA refrains from engaging in any speculations about the root cause of the accident. For example, an incident during the launch of Columbia on Jan. 16 may or may not have something to do with the loss during reentry.

A piece of foam had broken off the insulating layer of the External Tank and struck the leading surface of the left wing. After reviewing a high-resolution movie for a »goodly amount of time« (shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore), the incident was concluded to be insignificant. It is raising some eyebrows, though, that the series of sensor failures also affected the left wing of Columbia, albeit starting on its trailing side. Late on Feb. 1st there was also talk about unusual movements of the elevons on Columbia's wings, just before the orbiter was lost. For the time being all shuttle launches are suspended. The ISS is not immediately affected by that as there are supplies on board lasting until June - and there is always the Soyuz »taxi« to get off the station if need be. (Based largely on two NASA news conferences on Feb. 1 and several CNN special programs on Feb. 2)

Documents from NASA

General Columbia and special investigation pages.
Potentially crucial hi-res pictures of Columbia's wing underside before and after the foam fragment impact, of the foam incident and of the orbiter during reentry [SR] with the mysterious wing deformation.

Various NASA press releases on the independent investigation, the progress of events, the science data, the Investigation Board and a mail by Gerstenmaier.
All STS-107 Status Reports, including many after the disaster, and the first note on the the loss of communication [SR].

ESA and more first-hand sources

ESA Columbia Updates of Feb. 5 and Feb. 2 and an early note.
Hi-res amateur photographs of Columbia's reentry over California, transcripts of 911 calls, a (rather chaotic) weblog and another one.

More Press Releases

on the accident by USA, STA, Plan. Soc., ASGSB, ASE, NSS, Mars Soc. and eBay.
Also a detailled book chapter on the space shuttle and how it is leaving orbit, plus a chronology of the final minutes.


Spaceflight Now's Status pages, SpaceRef's links & stories, Fla. Today's Landing Journal, articles and extra edition, Ha'aretz' articles,'s Q&A and RP's Artikel.

Selected coverage on Feb. 9: NYT 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, WP 4, 3, 2, 1, AFP, FT, AP, SC, Guardian.

Feb. 8: JSR, SN, NYT 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, WP 3, 2, 1, BBC, ABC, FT 3, 2, 1, AFP 2, 1, ST, SC, RP 2, 1, NZ.

Feb. 7: AW&ST [SN, SR], Ast., SciAm, New Sci., Dsc., SF Gate, CNN, BBC, SN 3, 2, 1, NYT 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, WP 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, BBC, CSM, AFP 4, 3, 2, 1, UPI, FT 3, 2, 1, ST 3, 2, 1, Rtr, UPI, SC, NZ 2, 1.

Feb. 6: Nature 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, New Sci., Dsc., SN 3, 2, 1, Collect Space, Slate, AFP 3, 2, 1, ST 2, 1, NYT 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, WP 4, 3, 2, 1, FT 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, SF Gate 1, SC, BBC 2, 1, ABC, CSM, Rtr, Guardian, SC, ZEIT 3, 2, 1, RP, NZ.

Feb. 5: New Sci. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, SN, ST 2 , 1, NYT 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, WP 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, FT 4, 3, 2, 1, AFP 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, AP 3, 2, 1, CNN, BBC, ABC, UPI, Sky News, SF Gate, CSM, SC 4, 3, 2, 1, Salon, Welt, RP, NZ 2, 1.

Feb. 4: ST 2, 1, New Sci. 3, 2, 1, FT 3, 2, 1, SC 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, NYT 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, WP 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, AFP 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, AP 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, BBC 4, 3, 2, 1, RP, NZ 2, 1.

Feb. 3: New Sci. 3, 2, 1, Ast., TIME, OJR, SN 2, 1, ST 2, 1, FT 4, 3, 2, 1, SF Gate 3, 2, 1, AFP 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, BBC 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, NYT 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, WP 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, AP 3, 2, 1, SC 4, 3, 2, 1, AD, BBC, CSM, APOD, Welt, NZ 3, 2, 1.

Feb. 2: AW&ST, SR, UPI, Seattle T., FT 4:16, 4:07, 4:03, 4:00, 3:57, 3:51, 3:33, 3:32, 3:29, 3:10, 1:02, 1:02a, 0:54, 0:48, SN 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, CNN 16:24, 15:06, 14:49, 14:09, 7:58, 6:51, 4:57, NYT 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, WP 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, BBC 18:30, 11:58, 10:53, 9:35, 1:56, 0:22, AFP 23:22, 20:05, 15:34, 14:14, 14:14a, 8:42, 2:03, 1:31, 0:35, AP 15:53, 14:40, 12:08, 11:01, ST 16:33, 16:17, 2:30, SC 22:40, 22:10, 17:40, 0:01, SF Gate 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Guardian 4, 3, 2, 1, NZ 15:55, 12:41, 2:02.

Feb. 1: FT 19:04, earlier, SN 2, 1, NYT 3, 2, 1, BBC 21:50, 18:55, 17:16, 15:51, AFP 23:47, 22:26, 22:17, 20:18, 20:16, 17:24, 17:03, 16:13, 14:36, AP 23:55, 19:17, 19:02, Rtr 20:34, 16:13, ST 22:54, 22:39, 19:17, 18:52, 16:51, 16:30, SC 21:33, 20:31, 20:31a, 20:00, 16:14, 15:08, ABC 3, 2, 1, Ha'aretz 2, 1, TIME, SR, Wired, UPI, S&T, Ast., New Sci.

Pre-accident: Science@NASA of Jan. 31 and Jan. 27 and coverage of Jan. 31: NYT, BBC, SC, ST. Jan. 30: Dsc., AP, BdW. Jan. 28: FT, ST. Jan. 27: SC.

White House proposes $15.5 billion budget for NASA in 2004

The fiscal year 2004 U.S. budget proposal, drafted way before the Columbia tragedy, includes $15.47 billion for NASA in 2004, a 3.1% increase over the $15.0 billion Bush proposed in 2003; included are several new initiatives, including Project Prometheus to develop nuclear propulsion systems for future missions, funding for a new optical communications initiative that would use lasers to transmit data over interplanetary wavelengths, and another $130 million for the Pluto mission that has now become NASA policy - but it's totally unclear how much that proposal will be 'amemded' (changed) in the wake of the Columbia disaster: Plan. Soc. commentary and coverage by SN, FT, Wired, SC (earlier, still earlier, even earlier), CNN, ST (earlier, still earlier), NZ. Earlier: SR, SD.

Artemis finally reaches operational orbit

Eighteen months after an Ariane 5 had delivered it into an orbit that was way too low (see Update # 226 story 4), ESA's experimental communications satellite Artemis has finally reached the geostationary orbit - by using its ionic propulsion service in a way it had never been designed for. Initially provided on an experimental basis to correct orbit drift once Artemis was on station, the ion thrusters were used to raise the satellite's orbit from 31,000 km to 36,000 km. This is a much slower process than using a conventional apogee boost motor - a bit like using an outboard motor to drive an ocean liner - but here it was a case of better late than never! Before the orbit-raising operations could get underway, a huge reprogramming effort was required and it even proved necessary to develop completely new software from scratch, against the clock.

Those operations began with an initial, rapid shift to a safe parking orbit beyond the upper Van Allen Radiation Belt, the required thrust coming from the satellite's conventional, chemical-powered apogee boost motors. The small ionic motors then took over in February 2002 and, at an average of 15 kilometres a day, Artemis rose in spirals towards geostationary orbit - needless to say, there were incidents and unexpected problems on the way. In the final approach phase the chemical motor fired thrice in succession to adjust the satellite's velocity. Artemis has now taken up its operational station in Earth orbit and its instruments, placed in hibernation throughout the recovery campaign, have been reactivated. Once all systems are fully active Artemis will be ready to embark on what may prove to be a ten-year operational career, barely less than the service life that had been planned before these celestial gymnastics became necessary.

ESA Press Release and coverage by Welt.

Arianespace orders more baseline Ariane 5 boosters

It placed an order for an additional six "generic", or baseline, versions of its Ariane 5 booster: AFP, ST.
CNES president resigns from the troubled French space agency: AFP, ST.

Mt. Stromlo Observatory will be rebuilt

Australian astronomers are determined to resurrect the ruined Mount Stromlo Observatory: Ast. Dramatic photographs of the burned-down observatory have been taken by Matthew Colless.

SORCE launched, will continue measurements of solar irradiance

The Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE) was safely delivered into Earth orbit on Jan. 25, carried by a winged Pegasus XL rocket air-dropped over the Atlantic Ocean east of Florida. The $122m mission will help scientists understand the Sun's role in climate change here on Earth by measuring the amount of solar energy reaching the planet as our nearest star radiates through its various cycles. SORCE, with a mass of just 287 kg, carries four instruments: a Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM), the Spectral Irradiance Monitor (SIM), Solar Stellar Irradiance Comparison Experiment (SOLSTICE) and the Extreme Ultraviolet Photometer System (XPS). The TIM, SIM and SOLSTICE will measure solar irradiance and the solar spectrum, while the XPS detects high-energy radiation from the Sun.
The homepage, a KSC Release and coverage by ST, AFP, FT, SC.

The winner of the 'observe with a planet hunter' auction

has been identified as a California businessman: ASP Press Release, Ast., SC.

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Compiled and written by Daniel Fischer
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