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Apr 17, 2006
Columbia Shuttle Disaster Revisited (2)

It is time for NASA to release its analysis of the image, so that the original question—was the shuttle Columbia struck by megalightning?—can be answered more definitively, whatever that answer may be.

On February 1, 2003, shortly after the space shuttle Columbia began its re-entry, it broke apart catastrophically, killing all seven astronauts. Not long afterward, it became known that an amateur astronomer from the San Francisco area had taken a photograph showing the re-entry plasma trail of the shuttle. In the photograph a purplish corkscrew streamer merges with the plasma trail, which then brightens significantly.

Electrical theorists associated with the Thunderbolts group believe that the photograph suggests a strong possibility that the shuttle was struck by 'lower ionospheric megalightning'. Though such terminology is quite new, the science supporting such a possibility is now well established. 

But NASA scientists looked at the photograph and dismissed the corkscrew streamer as an artifact created by jiggling of the camera. The NASA 'explanation' was not accompanied by any published analysis, only a statement that there was no thunderstorm activity below Columbia when the photograph was taken. For the Thunderbolts folks, both the explanation and the reference to the absence of regional storm activity were red flags. No one in our group believes it is scientifically justified to dismiss the purplish corkscrew as an artifact of camera jiggling without a detailed analysis answering the obvious challenges to such an interpretation.

The reference to an "absence of regional storm activity" implies that scientists know what causes lightning. On the contrary, a world authority on the subject, Dr. Martin Uman, admits that the cause of the charge separation that results in lightning in a thunderstorm is not understood. It is simply a belief that thunderstorms somehow generate lightning. The difficulty is eliminated when we stop confusing cause and effect.

Electric charge has recently been found to sit high above thunderstorms, in the lower ionosphere. Contrary to popular belief, it is electric charge from space that lights up the stratosphere with weird phenomena called 'sprites' and 'elves' and drives violent thunderstorms below. However, it doesn't always require a thunderstorm below to trigger a discharge from the ionosphere. Large meteors sometimes act as a trigger. Uman cites many reports of lightning occurring from a clear blue sky. And the plasma trail of a re-entering shuttle would do nicely as an ionospheric 'lightning rod'.

So, on February 23, 2005, we posted a Picture of the Day entitled, "Space Shuttle Struck by Megalightning?" This prompted the amateur astronomer who had taken the photograph to contact us, insisting that the photograph be removed. So we complied with the request.

On August 5, 2005, James Oberg filed a special report to MSNBC, in which he referred to the photograph in question, then stated unequivocally that the issue had been settled. The photographer " had manually depressed the camera's button while Columbia was in the center of the field of view, its milky white trail already marked across the sky. The camera briefly jiggled until it settled. The zig-zag trail was from the fireball itself, and once stable, the camera recorded the persistent trail that already existed, as well as a brighter segment where the fireball proceeded out of the field of view".

Insofar as accessible information from NASA allows, this brief statement appears to be the organization's final position on the subject. No experiments, analyses, or demonstrations of the suggested camera effect have been forthcoming. So we are asked to take their word for it. When NASA released a massive Accident Investigation Report, it covered innumerable details of the mission, including many peripheral considerations.  The report also included an Appendix D.5 to Volume II, addressing the 'space weather' at the time of Columbia's re-entry, "prompted by public claims of unusually active space weather conditions during the mission and by a photograph that claimed to show a lightning bolt striking Columbia at an altitude of 230,000 feet over California during re-entry", but offering neither the photograph nor an analysis supporting their interpretation of it.

It seems NASA has no further interest in the question and the organization is proceeding with plans to launch the shuttle Discovery this summer. So we re-posted the story and the original picture on March 31, 2006, along with a brief additional statement.

Folks within NASA, or appointed by NASA, were aware of the way a camera can play tricks on a photographer or allow a photographer to play tricks on others.  A camera with an illuminated object in its view against a black background can create the impression of movement of that object by moving the camera. The luminous source will then present a trace of its motion superimposed on any still picture taken subsequently.

But of course it is much harder to play that trick when the camera movement occurs during a time lapse photograph in any natural setting, because that can work only if conditions and camera settings exclude even a ghost of anything other than the luminous object during the entire course of the 'jiggle". For example, stars registered on the photograph were used to determine the position of the shuttle. In the disputed photograph, there is a relatively bright plasma trail left by the shuttle. On the interpretation given, that trail was already in the field of view when the time-lapse photography began.  If, at any time during the time-lapse, even two or three percent of the plasma trail luminosity had registered during a jiggle of the camera, it would show up as a discernible ghost image of the shuttle re-entry fireball, which has a cometary appearance.

So at the very least a spokesman for such an interpretation is obligated to show how the 'fireball' registered sufficiently during the entire course of the jiggle and appears quite bright at places, while its highly luminous comet-like trail did not leave even the slightest ghost during the alleged camera shake.

In the original San Francisco Chronicle report on the photograph, the time lapse was said to be four to six seconds. On NASA's interpretation, during the time lapse, the shuttle (moving at many thousands of miles per hour) traversed about half the frame and the camera jiggle lasted for about 10 percent of the elapsed time. Applying NASA's interpretation, the bright spots on the corkscrew apparition are the points where the movement of the jiggling camera was least. And these would be the places where the forward movement and cometary trail of the fireball would be most evident. But no forward motion or trail is evident at any of those points.

With the image enhanced, the investigators should have looked for evidence of a bright corkscrew effect in the shuttle's plasma trail after the suggested lightning joined it. Were any people familiar with plasma discharge effects called in to examine the photograph, or was it left to meteorologists and/or magnetospheric experts (who don't believe lightning can occur at that altitude or from a clear blue sky)? Dr. Alfred Beddard of the National Oceanics and Atmospherics Administration, who was the first to record powerful infrasound from high-altitude sprites, had his array of detectors trained on the shuttle re-entry path. He had recorded the sounds of shuttle re-entries before. This time he detected an unusual "geophysical event, as powerful as an earthquake" close to the shuttle's path, moments before Columbia's breakup.

We should also remember that the photographer is reported to be an amateur astronomer and an 'image processing specialist'. On both counts he could be expected to have a heightened awareness of the possibility of camera shake. The full photograph, shown on a British television program 'MegaLightning' shows the frame with light in the sky, a few diffuse clouds and sharply defined power lines. The entire image is pin sharp, like the others in the series, the only anomaly being the purple corkscrew meeting the shuttle trail. The photographer's opinion on TV was that "it was a lightning bolt." It was only a few seconds after the purple corkscrew phenomenon occurred that the shuttle fireball brightened. Six minutes later the shuttle broke up. NASA forbade the San Francisco Chronicle from showing the photograph. The camera and the image were whisked away by one of their agents.

NASA's interpretation of camera jiggle seems precarious given the few facts we have managed to assemble. But what are we missing? We will certainly allow for the possibility that our tentative interpretation is flawed, perhaps fatally so. But we ask for sufficient scientific information so the question can be laid to rest. Why wasn't the complete image at full resolution, or at least a detailed report of the image analysis, made available to the public? Given the enormous implications for the safety of future astronauts, NASA's dismissal of the megalightning possibility will be one of its most tragic mistakes if its analysts are wrong.

NASA has been criticized in the past for ignoring the dangers of lightning during rocket launches. (Ironically, the shuttle Columbia was researching high altitude lightning from space for the first time). The problem is that there may be no defense against a random, super-powerful, lower ionospheric lightning strike during shuttle re-entry. And that is something that NASA might not care to admit.

In the present situation, we can only suspect that the inertia of standard theory has translated various conjectures into the way things are. In this environment, selective perception and selective forgetfulness can easily take over. It is in the public interest that we be told more about NASA's photograph analysis. And whatever the untold facts may be about this photograph, it is urgent that NASA officials and aerospace industries give due attention to the electric Earth and to the dangers posed by megalightning.

Coming April 21:
Columbia Shuttle Disaster Revisited (3)
The Realities of Megalightning

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Authors David Talbott and Wallace Thornhill introduce the reader to an age of planetary instability and earthshaking electrical events in ancient times. If their hypothesis is correct, it could not fail to alter many paths of scientific investigation.

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Professor of engineering Donald Scott systematically unravels the myths of the "Big Bang" cosmology, and he does so without resorting to black holes, dark matter, dark energy, neutron stars, magnetic "reconnection", or any other fictions needed to prop up a failed theory.

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