Thursday, January 20, 2005

Columbia crew saw new atmospheric phenomenon

A new atmospheric phenomenon was caught on video by the crew of the space shuttle Columbia just days before the shuttle broke apart, new findings suggest.

Astronauts relayed the video to NASA in real-time during their 16-day flight. But the agency did not release the full data to researchers until several months after the mission's tragic end on 1 February 2003. All seven crewmembers were killed when the shuttle exploded while re-entering the atmosphere.

Yoav Yair of the Open University in Ra'anana, Israel, and colleagues spent more than a year analysing the video, which was originally taken to study atmospheric dust. But a single frame of the video - representing just 33 milliseconds - shows a mysterious reddish glow in the night sky on 20 January 2003.

"I'm not sure what we saw," says Yair. "I just know it wasn't something we were used to seeing - it was something extraordinary." The glow occurred about 150 kilometres above the ocean near Madagascar and does not appear to be linked with thunderstorms.

Even more new atmospheric "species" may turn up with future observations from satellites or the International Space Station, says Yair.

And he adds that the observation of the TIGER adds to the scientific discoveries of the mission, honouring the lives of the lost astronauts. "Of course, it's no consolation. But it shows the astronauts didn't die for nothing - some science was achieved," he told New Scientist.

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