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Graphic Removed

Mar 31, 2006
Columbia Disaster Revisited

Today we are returning to our Picture of the Day one of the most important images among the hundreds of images we have discussed in these pages. On February 23, 2005 our topic was, "Space Shuttle Struck by Megalightning?" The accompanying picture is seen above. It shows the plasma trail of the shuttle Columbia on reentry about 63 kilometers above the earth, and it seems to show an electric discharge striking the shuttle's plasma trail. For anyone knowledgeable on the upper atmospheric electrical environment of the Earth the question raised is all too obvious. Could this discharge have caused the disastrous breakup of the shuttle, leading to the death of the seven astronauts?

Shortly after we posted the story, the amateur astronomer who had taken the picture contacted us. He insisted that we remove the photograph. So we did.

Now we are returning the image to our published files because it is not in the public interest that the image be ignored or forgotten--the fate of so many uncomfortable images in the space sciences. Perhaps, in the end, the issue of public interest will have to be resolved by a court, and if we are instructed by a court to remove the photograph we will do so. 

In the meantime, we will stand by our present decision. NASA's current schedule calls for the launch of the space shuttle Discovery in July. But the organization's hasty dismissal of the picture was simply not rational, and the decision can only underscore astronomers' and meteorologists' general ignorance of the things plasma science has revealed about electricity in space and in Earth's upper atmosphere.

If there are times when issues affecting the safety of others must take priority over all claims of "ownership", surely this is one of those times. Therefore, we include below the text of the original story (edited slightly to remove the name of the astronomer who took the picture).

February 23, 2005
Space Shuttle Struck by Megalightning?

It has now been more than two years since the fiery destruction of the shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003. The disaster killed all seven astronauts on board and dealt one of the most severe blows ever to America’s space program.

But as astronauts now prepare to ride another shuttle into space, few Americans are aware of the most critical issue raised by the Columbia disaster. Did a super-bolt of lightning--called "megalightning"--strike Columbia, causing the breakup of the craft?

Shocking evidence that this is so includes the image above, taken from the TV program "Megalightning." It shows a purplish corkscrew trail of "something" merging with the ionized plasma trail of Columbia early in its descent, while Columbia was still 63 kilometers above the earth. One might have expected this image to catch the attention of media around the world. But before that could happen, both the camera and the photograph were examined by NASA scientists.

Most shocking was the explanation given by experts who analyzed the photograph. They said that the luminous corkscrew trail was an "artifact" caused by a camera wobble. The explanation left critics aghast, since the Columbia trail in the photo is crisp with no evidence of camera movement. Nor is any wobble evident in other similar photographs taken at the time. The explanation relegates to "coincidence" the fact that the Columbia trail brightens precisely at its juncture with the corkscrew trail. This brightening is an electrically predictable occurrence when two plasma channels merge.

Proponents of the "Electric Universe" have maintained for many years that ideology within official science has limited the ability of working scientists to look at pictures objectively, to see what would otherwise be obvious. Popular doctrines say that Earth is a neutral body in the neutral environment of the Sun. When lightning strikes, its source must lie in the mysterious ability of clouds and temperature gradients to "separate charge." A bolt of lightning in the rarified atmosphere 63 kilometers above the earth is unthinkable within this framework. Therefore, the alleged lightning strike on Columbia could not have happened.

Alternative viewpoints do not suffer from these limitations. In the Electric Universe, our Earth is an integral part of solar system circuitry, fed by currents streaming along our arm of the Milky Way. An electric field between Earth’s surface and the ionosphere, separated by an insulating layer of atmosphere, is responsible for thunderstorms. In weather conditions favoring breakdown of this insulation, electric currents leak through the atmospheric layer (in the fashion of a "leaky capacitor"), creating the electrical displays we see in thunderstorms. And this is why, far above thunderstorms, meteorologists have discovered powerful discharges called "red sprites" and "blue jets" reaching many kilometers into the ionosphere. In fact, electrical interactions associated with powerful thunderstorms have now been traced outward to the Van Allen Belt.

Since the discharge of a sprite is diffused over a large area, meteorologists have doubted that a sprite could damage aircraft. But here is how Wallace Thornhill, a pioneer of the Electric Universe hypothesis, views the issue:

"The electromagnetic "pinch" effect will ensure that the energy of that sprite will be focused onto any large electrical conductor that blunders into its domain – as we see in the time-lapse photograph. The brightening of Columbia’s trail where the lightning joined it is due to the sudden release of energy in the more dense plasma of that trail. It is that kind of energy that was released over a few square centimeters of Columbia’s wing. Temperatures of tens of thousands of degrees would have resulted. The Shuttle’s tiles are designed to withstand 2900 C."

This is where Professor Edgar Bering, a physicist at the University of Houston in Texas, comes in. He heads a team from NASA's National Scientific Balloon Facility to study sprites by flying a high-altitude balloon above major thunderstorms. His work, preceding the Columbia disaster, led to some surprising conclusions about sprites. He found that the charge released in sprites is not generated within the clouds, but lies in the mesosphere above the thunderstorms. And the energy is far greater than previously thought.

But according to Thornhill, all of the data will fall into place if the charge in the mesosphere "comes from space via the ionosphere above," not from charge separation within the clouds below. It will then make sense that Bering found the current released in a sprite to be around 12,000 amperes, rather than the 3,000 amperes predicted by conventional models of cloud-generated charge.

It does not appear, however, that NASA scientists have followed Bering’s discovery to its logical conclusion: "None of the existing models will survive when people finally pay attention to what our data actually says," Bering writes.

If the fate of Columbia was indeed the result of megalightning, then scientific misperception has cost human lives. And it is now placing other lives at risk as well.

Read more at:

Please visit our new "Thunderblog" page

Through the initiative of managing editor Dave Smith, we’ve begun the launch of a new
page called Thunderblog. Timely presentations of fact and opinion, with emphasis on
new discoveries and the explanatory power of the Electric Universe."

new: online video page

The Electric Sky and The Electric Universe available now!


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.

More info

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.

More info


In language designed for scientists and non-scientists alike, authors Wallace Thornhill and David Talbott show that even the greatest surprises of the space age are predictable patterns in an electric universe.

More info

David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Michael Armstrong
  CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Dwardu Cardona, Ev Cochrane,
C.J. Ransom, Don Scott, Rens van der Sluijs, Ian Tresman
  WEBMASTER: Michael Armstrong

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