NASA recovered a section of Columbia's wing and inspected a photo shot by a military telescope that shows a gray streak behind the shuttle, moments before it broke apart. Officials hoped the wing piece the most significant find yet could hold clues to the breakup but said Friday the photo revealed little.
The space agency did not yet know if the 2-foot piece of wing found near Fort Worth came from Columbia's left side, where sensors registered surges in temperatures just before the shuttle came apart during its descent last Saturday.
The photo, shot by a powerful Air Force telescope camera in New Mexico, shows a fuzzy, batwing-shaped silhouette of the shuttle with a dark gray streak behind the left wing.
Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said it would take more study to determine whether the image shows a problem with the shuttle, and if the gray streak is from Columbia or only a technical aberration in the photo.
Some people have said they see damage on the left wing, thought to be the heart of Columbia's problems, Dittemore noted.
"It does look like there's something a little different about the left-hand side behind the wing than the right-hand side," he said. "That does look a little different to us and that's an area of investigation."
Dittemore said the photo does not resolve the question of whether Columbia may have been seriously damaged by a chunk of foam debris that struck the shuttle's left wing shortly after liftoff Jan. 16.
"I'd be cautious about what all this information means," he said. "We've got a long way to go."
As for the recovered wing section, Dittemore said it has 26 to 27 inches of carbon-composite panel, which reinforces the leading edges of space shuttle wings for thermal protection during the searing heat of atmospheric re-entry, reaching as high as 3,000 degrees. The piece also has 18 inches of actual wing structure.
During his briefing with reporters, Dittemore went through diagrams showing the gradual heating change in the sensors on Columbia's left wing and adjoining area of the fuselage, where some sensors registered a temperature increase while others stopped working.
Hopes have faded that NASA might get more information from data from the final 32 seconds recorded between the time Mission Control's computers stopped reading the data to the point all sensors went dead. The data were too garbled to be interpreted and largely useless, said James Gavura, director of NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System.
"There was 31 seconds (of silence) and then 1 more second of data," he said.
That second could contain information on the position of the orbiter just before it began to tumble and break up, Gavura said.
Although that second has not been verified as shuttle data, Gavura said it appears to have the proper signature.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe arrived at Johnson Space Center on Friday afternoon after spending the morning at a memorial service for the seven astronauts at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
O'Keefe met with an independent advisory board, which took the lead in the investigation Thursday, and addressed NASA employees about their concerns as the investigation progresses.
"Right now, we want to find out what happened." he stressed. "No one person will be fingered."
CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood has covered America's space program full time for more than 15 years, focusing on space shuttle operations, planetary exploration and astronomy. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood provides up-to-the-minute space reports for CBS News and regularly contributes to Spaceflight Now and The Washington Post.
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