The images — three photographs and three infrared images — were studied in detail by the board investigating the disaster but appeared to be of little use to officials. Columbia flew most of its mission upside down relative to Earth, so the images showed only the top of the space craft.
Investigators suspect that Columbia suffered crippling damage to the lower part of its left wing when a 2-pound chunk of insulating foam smashed against it 81 seconds after liftoff.
The six, slightly grainy images do not show obvious damage to Columbia's left wing, although details like the cockpit windshield and protective panels along the wing's edge are visible. The shuttle was orbiting at an altitude of about 172 miles.
The images, quietly published last week on part of NASA's Web site, were captured Jan. 28 — four days before Columbia's breakup — by powerful telescopes at the Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing Site, which is located at the crest of the dormant volcano Haleakala.
The facility includes the nation's largest optical telescope for tracking satellites, the 75-ton, 3.67-meter Advanced Electro-Optical System.
Telescopes at the Maui facility routinely monitor space shuttles' flights over the Pacific.
By Ted Bridis