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NASA Studies Photo Showing Apparent Damage to <i>Columbia</i> Wing

The U.S. space agency NASA is analyzing a military photograph that appears to show damage to a wing of the ill-fated shuttle Columbia shortly before it disintegrated last Saturday. But the agency's shuttle chief says the image provides little evidence for the cause of the disaster.

In Columbia's final moments intact, a picture from a powerful U.S. Air Force ground camera shows what appears to be a jagged front edge of the left wing where it joins the body. It also shows apparent smoke trailing behind the wing.

The image shows little detail, but suggests that the wing might be breaking away or that a section of it had fallen off before the accident.

But shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said the photograph by itself is not revealing. "I'm aware there may be some media reports that say this photograph is tremendously important," he said. "It's not clear to me that it reveals anything significant at this point. We've got a long way to go. We have to add up all the different photographs and look at every piece of information and catalog it properly until we get the right data set."

The NASA official said experts are analyzing the image and seeking similar pictures from the same stage of a successful shuttle flight for comparison. That's the best way to see if there is something that is misaligned or something that is not right. So we're going to go back to our databases and our experience to try to get a comparison of something that we know is absolutely pristine and compare it with this flight and see if there is anything that alerts us to a change in configuration or some type of [unusual] event," he said.

As inconclusive as the photo is, it calls into question the structural health of the side of the shuttle that was clearly in trouble just before landing. The space agency says the temperature around the left landing wheel and on the left side of the shuttle's body above the wing surged far above normal shortly before the orbiter broke into many thousands of pieces.

Mr. Dittemore said NASA technicians are hoping for clues to the shuttle's demise by determining the location of the left side sensors that transmitted temperature readings and other sensors that simply stopped working. "We're trying to develop some understanding of a pattern and whether or not there is some common point that is preventing these sensors from functioning and we're looking certainly at the wiring and the routing of the cables and the timeline in a sequence of events," he said.

Mr. Dittemore is hoping that a piece of a shuttle wing recovered near Fort Worth, Texas might shed light on the calamity. But he said the side it came from is still unknown. If it is from the left wing, it might offer critical evidence for what went wrong minutes before Columbia was to land.

NASA is also checking theories that space debris, a meteorite, or lightning might have struck the shuttle. It is asking atmospheric experts if static electricity could overheat a shuttle flying at 18 times the speed of sound at an altitude of 61,000 meters.