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Space Shuttle Columbia

NASA conducting shuttle tile flotation studies

Checking wind, water paths and under wings

By Richard Stenger

NASA released images of what appears to be debris hitting  Columbia's left side 80 seconds after liftoff January 16.
NASA released images of what appears to be debris hitting Columbia's left side 80 seconds after liftoff January 16.

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Home video captures pieces breaking off of Columbia as the doomed shuttle flies over San Jose, California (February 4)
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Investigators looking into the space shuttle disaster are focusing on a piece of fuel tank insulation that broke off shortly after Columbia launched. CNN's Miles O'Brien reports (February 4)
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NASA urges people not to go near debris from Columbia because it could contain toxic substances. People who find debris are asked to call (281) 483-3388. NASA has also set up a Web site  to collect information that may be helpful in the investigation of the shuttle disaster.external link

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- While most of the investigative team "stood down" for Tuesday's Columbia memorial service, others searched coast to coast for clues to why the space shuttle disintegrated, claiming the seven lives of its crew.

Recovery teams headed to California where reports indicate it's possible that pieces of the wings or tiles may have been found.

The discovery of debris so far west could provide invaluable clues as to what caused the shuttle to break up as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere Saturday.

"Early debris, early in the flight path, would be critical because that material would obviously be near the start of the events," NASA assistant administrator Michael Kostelnik said. "It would clearly be very important to see the material earliest in the sequence." (More on recovery efforts)

He also said video of Columbia's breakup shot by a military helicopter in the skies above Texas Saturday will soon be making its way to investigators at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"An Apache helicopter flying in Texas ... happened to record optically the flight of the shuttle," Kostelnik.

There may also be Air Force photographs of the shuttle's re-entry into Earth's atmosphere that NASA can examine, he said.

Most of the debris rained down over a 28,000-square mile section of eastern Texas and western Louisiana. Heavy pieces of Columbia's engines were found Tuesday in Louisiana.

The independent board appointed to find the cause of the disaster visited two sites near Nacogdoches, Texas, Tuesday.

NASA is collecting data from wind profilers in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico and Oklahoma in an effort to reconstruct where other shuttle debris may have landed.

Wind profiling systems automatically collect data continuously from near the ground up to 53,000 feet,according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"NOAA radar can detect particles in the atmosphere and show their changing position as they descend through the atmosphere. The strength of the radar signals indicate the speed that the particles are falling as well as the size of the particles," Margot Ackley, profiler division chief, said.

"In addition to being able to see debris, we measure speed and direction of the wind which will be another important data set for the analysis," she said.

In Florida, NASA managers and engineers concentrated on two areas -- checking out the shuttle fleet's three remaining vehicles and determining if any tiles lost on liftoff could have floated back to shore.

NASA spokesman Bruce Buckingham told CNN that engineers believe the shuttle tiles will float, but "nothing from the shuttle has been found or located."

A few days before the shuttle disaster, NASA noted that debris perhaps insulation foam -- striking Columbia's left wing after takeoff might have "the potential for a large damage area to the tile."

That damage "may certainly be the leading candidate" in the search for the cause of the disaster, according to the agency. (Full story)

The foam that fell from the external tank and hit the shuttle's wing on liftoff January 16 was likely the largest piece of foam that had ever fallen from the tank, Kostelnik said Tuesday. It measured 20 inches by 10 inches by 6 inches and weighed about 2 1/2 pounds.

While NASA is looking at what may have caused the insulation to fall off the external fuel tank, he pointed out other incidents in which foam broke off did not cause any flight problems. (Learn more about the external tank)

In an effort to find other debris from Columbia's launch, Kennedy Space Center officials have asked for a study of currents and construction of models to determine where any lost tiles or other hardware might float back to shore.

Buckingham said no one is actually searching beaches because NASA feels it's unlikely anything would be found.

Meanwhile, NASA engineers and technicians were looking under the wings of space shuttles Atlantis, Discovery, and Endeavour in hopes of finding other information that might prove useful to investigators in Texas and Louisiana, where the Kennedy Space Center has sent 130 people to help.

Atlantis was scheduled to be rolled out to the launch pad Wednesday in preparation for launch March 1, but now will remain inside the giant vehicle assembly building. It has already been mated to its external tank and solid rocket boosters.

Discovery and Endeavour remain in the orbiter processing facility.

Endeavour was scheduled for a space station construction mission in May.

Discovery is being serviced and maintained and does not have an announced launch date.

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