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This image, taken from the space shuttle Columbia two weeks before its disastrous reentry, depicts a previously
 unobserved phenomenon in the upper atmosphere, a Transient Ionospheric Glow Emission in Red, or TIGER.
Credit: Yoav Yair, Open University.


Apr 21, 2006
Columbia Shuttle Disaster Revisited (3)
The Realities of Megalightning

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 astronauts.

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 storm clouds.

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 (see below).

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 problems".

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 tether".

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 ionosphere.

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 following

"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.

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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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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.

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