U.S. space agency officials confirmed Friday that they are analyzing military photographs that appear to show damage to the space shuttle Columbia shortly before it disintegrated over Texas last week. Searchers in Texas have also found part of one of the shuttle's wings.
NASA official Mike Kostelnik told reporters in Washington that the space agency has received photographs of the final moments of Columbia, taken by a powerful Air Force camera on the ground.
Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine reports that the photos were taken just a minute before Columbia broke apart. The magazine says the images showed serious structural damage to Columbia's left wing, including what it describes as a "ragged" edge along the wing near the fuselage.
NASA official Mike Kostelnik says some of the photos are of "very poor resolution," and that it will be up to the independent board investigating the Columbia disaster to determine exactly what they show. "I can't really make a judgment on what the image actually shows," he said. "People looking at that would draw their own analysis. Clearly, this is the type of information that the [independent investigating] board will make these judgments on, and what that means. But it is during the time period when we are getting these anomalies [unusual data readings from the shuttle] on the ground. So, whatever is happening is probably consistent with whatever that photo shows."
If the photos do confirm damage to Columbia's left wing, investigators may be drawn back to the possibility that a chunk of foam insulation from the shuttle's external fuel tank may have played a significant role in the disaster, when it struck the shuttle's left wing shortly after liftoff.
Mr. Kostelnik also announced that searchers in Texas have found the carbon edge of one of Columbia's wings, perhaps one of the most significant pieces of debris yet recovered. "We do have a large piece of one of the wings. It is not clear which wing this is," he said. "But, obviously, given the anomalies [problems] we have on the descent coming through the left wing, obviously, this structure is very important."
Mr. Kostelnik says the investigation into Columbia's demise is moving into a new phase, as the probe is turned over to an independent board selected by NASA.
Also Friday, thousands of workers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida gathered at the Cape Canaveral landing strip where Columbia was to have landed last Saturday to pay tribute to the seven astronauts who died in the disaster.