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Was Shuttle Columbia Downed by MegaLightning Strike?

News reports said that the astronauts assigned to the first space shuttle mission since then were confident the mistakes and technical problems that led to that accident were in the past.

Shuttle engineers caught the blame for a scientific failure to protect from MegaLightning

NASA scientists seem unwilling to admit they do NOT understand the cause of lightning and so were unfit to judge whether Columbia was struck a fatal blow by a super-bolt of lightning from space, now referred to as megalightning. Instead they have managed to convince themselves and the public that Columbia was mechanically damaged on takeoff. By doing so they risk the lives of astronauts in future. It is a high price to pay.


According to an article Columbia: Questions of Some Gravity, Columbia was mortally damaged during re-entry by a bolt of megalightning. I have now seen the image [link updated 2012] referred to in the San Francisco Chronicle.* A characteristic corkscrew trail of lightning appears at very high altitude “out of a clear blue sky.” It is seen to brighten as it joins the ionized reentry trail of Columbia. Experts who checked the San Francisco photo concluded the time-lapse image of lightning was caused by a camera wobble! But there is no sign of wobble in the Columbia trail or in other similar photographs taken on the same camera at the time. I estimate the elevation above the northern horizon to have been a little less than 40 degrees.

The possibility of destruction by megalightning became front page news in the San Francisco Chronicle. The camera and the photographic evidence was examined by NASA. Professor Umran Inan of Stanford University said: “our conclusion was that there was no evidence for any electrical activity at the altitudes that the shuttle went through …there was a camera shot. It turned out to most likely be an artefact of the particular camera.”

Lighting sequence animation

Lighting sequence animation

NASA’s probe into the shuttle lightning strike was never made public. Unfortunately it is an area where there is considerable ignorance, which would be embarrassing to expose to the media spotlight. Walt Lyons, a meteorologist with FMA Research of Colorado, in 1996 reported to NASA on the dangers of sprites. He concluded that their vast size spread out their energy, making them unlikely killers – but cautioned not enough was known to be certain they were harmless.

A low resolution copy of megalightning hitting shuttle.  Credit: dmptv/Peter Goldie.
San Francisco Chronicle February 5, 2003:

Mysterious purple streak is shown hitting Columbia 7 minutes before it disintegrated

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.

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 manually.

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.

“It certainly appears very anomalous,” said Jernigan. “We sure will be very interested in taking a very hard look at this.”

An unforgettable photograph

An unforgettable photograph

Columbia was destroyed at about 09:00 EST on February 1, 2003 while re-entering the atmosphere after a 16-day scientific mission. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board determined that a hole was punctured in the leading edge on one of Columbia’s wings, made of a carbon composite. The hole had formed when a piece of insulating foam from the external fuel tank peeled off during the launch 16 days earlier and struck the shuttle’s left wing. During the intense heat of re-entry, hot gases penetrated the interior of the wing, destroying the support structure and causing the rest of the shuttle to break apart. The nearly 84,000 pieces of collected debris of the vessel are stored in a 16th floor office suite in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center.

The seven crew members who died aboard this final mission were: Rick Husband, Commander; William C. McCool, Pilot; Michael P. Anderson, Payload Commander; David M. Brown, Mission Specialist 1; Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist 2; Laurel Clark, Mission Specialist 3; and Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist 1.

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