Apr 21, 2006
Columbia Shuttle Disaster Revisited (3)
The Realities of
Some have dubbed it the "ignorosphere" because it has been largely
ignored during the space age. But the upper atmosphere now reveals
electrical phenomena that are critical to the safety of future
When the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas on February 1,
2003 during reentry into the Earth's atmosphere, the stage was set for
an urgent reevaluation of space shuttle safety. NASA set in motion an
intensive investigation, culminating in a massive "Accident
Investigation Report". The report appears to have left little question
as to the cause.
The investigators had quickly zeroed in on an early suspicion. The
report noted that, as the Space Shuttle lifted off from Kennedy Space
Center in Florida on January 16, a small portion of foam broke away from
the external fuel tank and struck the orbiter's left wing. The impact
apparently created a hole in the wing's leading edge, which caused the
vehicle to break apart under the stresses of reentry. Such a hole was
not observed directly, but experiments after the accident verified the
possibility of such damage, and such damage seems consistent with
progressive warnings and related problems the shuttle encountered in its
reentry just prior to its disastrous breakup.
Critics have found little to quibble with in the report, with one
exception. The discussion of electrical phenomena, reserved for Appendix
D.5 to Volume II, addressed the 'space weather' at the time of
Columbia's re-entry, but failed to address any issue relating to the
electric field of the Earth and the inherent problems this field could
pose for shuttle safety. While mentioning "a photograph that claimed to
show a lightning bolt striking Columbia at an altitude of 230,000 feet
over California during re-entry", NASA never made the original
high-resolution photograph available and never provided any analysis
supporting its conclusion that the purplish corkscrew merging with the
plasma trail of Columbia, was caused by a camera "jiggle".
While we can accept the possibility of a camera jiggle as the culprit,
we have given our
reasons for skepticism. If NASA's interpretation is correct, the
justification of the interpretation, based on information it possesses
and we don’t, should be a simple matter. But one photograph, no
analysis, and no demonstration of NASA's interpretation, can only breed
doubts. Those who consider it dangerous to ignore Earth's electric field
are dismayed by NASA's response.
Over several decades, NASA and space program officials have exhibited
little interest in atmospheric, upper atmospheric, and near-Earth
electrical phenomena—until they were caught by surprise. The
organization was caught by surprise when the Apollo 12 craft was struck
by lightning in 1969. The first occasion occurred 36 seconds after
liftoff, at an altitude of about 6,500 feet (2,000 meters), setting off
the master alarm. The second occurred 52 seconds into the mission at an
altitude of about 14,500 feet (4,400 meters), shutting down both the
navigation system and telemetry contact with Mission Control in Houston.
In the absence of communication, engineers on the ground did not know
that the spacecraft had been struck by lightning. At that moment, the
flight director contemplated a potentially disastrous abort command.
Though all ended satisfactorily with the Apollo 12 mission, the
unexpected lightning blasts were a turning point, and NASA immediately
changed its policy to preclude launches in adverse weather conditions
(storm clouds in the vicinity).
From the beginning of the space age until the late 1980s, not just NASA
but meteorologists as a whole paid little attention to reports of weird
lighting flashes above thunderclouds—until the reports
became too numerous to be ignored. That is how scientists eventually
became interested enough to look at satellite pictures already
taken—over many years—to document the existence of "transient
luminous events" called
'red sprites', 'blue jets', and 'elves'. These phenomena, now fully
acknowledged, occur at elevations that were systematically ignored due
to prior beliefs about "what makes lightning": The electrical discharges
take place between the lower ionosphere and the tops of
From this interest also emerged the recent study of 'positive'
lightning—perhaps ten times as powerful as ordinary 'negative' lightning
and powerful enough to have emerged as a prime suspect in more than one
air disaster. "Some experts fear some forms [of positive lightning] may
eventually be found to be the culprit in a number of mystery disasters
involving airliners and space craft", reports ion specialist Guy Cramer
Even before the Columbia disaster, NASA had launched an investigation of
the dangers of megalightning. According to Cramer, "the investigators
recommended a six-fold increase in the resilience of some aircraft
construction materials to protect fully against the powers of this
positively charged super-lightning which can fire above the clouds to a
height more than 20 times that of Mount Everest".
There is good reason for the concern. A September 7, 2003 report by
Sabin Russell of the San Francisco Chronicle notes that in June 5, 1989,
an upper-atmospheric electrical discharge struck a high-altitude NASA
balloon 129,000 feet above Dallas, Texas. Scientists had long said that
nothing of the sort could occur because the atmosphere was too thin 50
miles above the Earth. The result of the blast was 'an uncommanded
payload release' and much of the debris landed in an angry Dallas
resident's front yard. Investigators found scorch marks on the debris
and considered it one of the first bits of solid evidence that sprites
exist (the altitude of the balloon was much higher than the tops of
storm clouds). As a result of the accident, NASA no longer flies
balloons over thunderstorms.
More than a decade ago, Walter Lyons, a consultant with FMA Research
Inc. in Fort Collins, Colorado, conducted a study of sprite danger for
NASA. "We concluded that there is about 1 chance in 100 that a shuttle
could fly through a sprite. What impact, we didn't know for certain. It
didn't appear at this time that the energy would be enough to cause
There is also abundant evidence, previously noted in these pages, of
electrical discharge and
electrophonic effects in the displays of meteoric visitors at
"astonishingly" high altitudes. The meteors' plasma trails provide a
conductive path for the discharge. So we are not surprised to find that,
as reported by Russell, scientists have "observed interactions between a
blue jet and a meteor".
In December 1999, Los Alamos National Laboratories researcher David
Suszcynsky and colleagues (including Walter Lyons) published an account
of a meteor that apparently triggered a sprite. "It was a
singular observation that had us all scratching our heads," said Lyons.
When a strong bolt of lightning occurs, electrical effects can also be
seen in the Van Allen radiation belt some 4000 miles above the Earth's
surface. This is possible only because space is not a vacuum but a sea
of plasma. Our Earth is a charged body in that sea, and its electric
field, though weak in terms of small distances (say, ten meters),
extends far into space. When short-circuited over larger distances (a
few miles) by a conducting wire or conductive stream of more dense
plasma (plasma trail of a meteor or a space shuttle), the dangers of
electrical arcing should be obvious.
But such considerations are absent from the standard picture of space.
When NASA officials planned to have astronauts unravel a 12-mile-long
'space tether', they were just thinking of harnessing energy in Earth's
magnetic field. For the electrical theorists, the dangers are all too
obvious. The experiment was conducted on February 25, 1996. But before
the experiment could be completed, the shuttle-end of the tether
exploded. "The nature of the break suggested it was not caused by
excessive tension, but rather that an electric current had melted the
The "official" explanation shows how a leak of air through pinholes in
the tether insulation could form a dense plasma around the tether that
could carry a high current. The question remains whether this was
sufficient to cause the tether to 'flash-over' to the Shuttle and to
separate. The investigation assumed that electrical power from the
tether was available solely from its movement through the Earth's
magnetic field. No account was taken of the electric discharge activity
that we now know extends between thunderstorms and space. Such
discharges have a sudden onset, which may not register on instruments
before catastrophic damage is done. We confidently predict that future
attempts to deploy electrical tethers in space will meet the same fate.
They are the equivalent of a 20 km lightning rod extended above the
In noting the limits of human knowledge of the ionosphere Lyons observed
that, "There are other things up there that we probably don't know
about. Every time we look in that part of the atmosphere, we find
something totally new."
The remark was prescient. Just two weeks before the Columbia disaster,
Ilan Ramon recorded an unusual occurrence—an instantaneous red flash in
the upper atmosphere just south of Madagascar over the Indian Ocean.
(See picture above). It could not be caught with the naked eye, but it
was caught by a specially-filtered camera lens, and the specialists
examining the image have excluded camera tricks or artifacts as a cause.
Because it suggests an unfamiliar lightning form, researchers named it a
'Transient Ionospheric Glow Emission in Red', or a 'TIGER'. "What we saw
was new stuff, which surprised us," says Yoav Yair, a scientist with
Open University in Israel and lead author on a paper published in
Geophysical Research Letters.
Reports of the TIGER, though largely unpublicized, caught the attention
of a specialist in atmospheric ions, Guy Cramer, who had performed
consulting services to NASA the year before the Columbia disaster.
Cramer had also been notified of the now-infamous photograph of the
"purplish corkscrew" merging with Columbia's plasma trail.
Based on his analysis, Cramer concluded the
"The reason the experts and CAIB dismissed the San Francisco (corkscrew
lightning) photo was the lack of thunderclouds in the region and no
other objective examples of this new form of lightning. My review of the
TIGER event shows a similar pattern to the San Francisco photo—no
thunderclouds in the region and a corkscrew bolt…"
"The TIGER event also has a corkscrew behind it, difficult to see but
it's there (I did some enhancement on the entire picture to better show
the corkscrew) which starts right under the T in the word TIGER and
travels left to right. Air ions charges do corkscrew with altitude as
per my research in the Southern Hemisphere Study 1990…
"If the Shuttle was struck by a high altitude lightning event(s) on
re-entry this doesn't mean that there wasn't already wing damage,
in-fact damage to the leading edge at MACH 18 and the resulting buildup
of charge from the damaged area may have triggered this event as can be
seen in the direction of the strike from the left side of the contrail,
however, given the expected voltages of a lightning event at altitude
and conductive material of the RCC panels may have turned the damaged
area from a minor problem (where the shuttle may have been able to land)
into catastrophic damage".
In concluding this review, we wish to emphasize again that our purpose
is not to render a verdict on a disputed photograph, but to draw
attention to the rapidly mounting evidence of an 'electric Earth'.
Anything less than an open inquiry is a disservice both to the public
and to science.
Please visit our new "Thunderblog" page
Through the initiative of managing
editor Dave Smith, we’ve begun the launch of a new
presentations of fact and opinion, with emphasis on
and the explanatory power of the Electric Universe."
new: online video page
The Electric Sky and The Electric Universe