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Friday, 7 February, 2003, 21:29 GMT
Speculation mounts over shuttle photos
Mourners at the astronaut memorial, Kennedy Space Center
A memorial service was held for the shuttle's crew
The US space agency Nasa is studying pictures of the shuttle Columbia shortly before it broke up, which reportedly show serious structural damage to its left wing.

Nasa official Mike Kostelnik declined to comment on the exact content of the photos, but said they were taken at a time when anomalies were being detected by Nasa's control centre on the ground.

It would be speculative to judge what these photos show

Mike Kostelnik at Nasa press conference

US media have reported that high-resolution pictures taken of the shuttle about a minute before it broke up showed serious structural damage to the left wing.

Mr Kostelnik however said the long-range pictures were taken by a ground-based camera from Air Force laboratory and were of very low resolution.

He made it clear he did not know of any high resolution pictures.

Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine said images of the reported damage were captured by an Air Force tracking camera as the shuttle flew overhead.

Initial suspicion about what led to the shuttle's disintegration focused on damage caused to the shuttle's left side during lift-off.

'Significant recovery'

The magazine said the photos showed a damaged jagged edge on the left wing, including areas protected by the extra-strong material on the leading edge known as "reinforced carbon carbon".

Experts say this is far stronger than the tiles used elsewhere on the shuttle, because of the extreme heat which builds up there on re-entry.

The magazine said the pictures also showed the small steering rockets on the right wing firing.

The BBC's Mike Fox in Washington says that, if true, it would confirm that Columbia's computers were trying to compensate for the extra drag created by the damaged left wing.

Nasa officials also said on Friday that a large portion of the wing's leading edges had been found in the Fort Worth area of Texas, along with some tiles.

"There has been a significant recovery... we do have a large piece of one of the wings," Mr Kostelnik said.

But it was not immediately clear which wing it was from.

Meanwhile, special teams are continuing to look for wreckage in California, which would be the first pieces to break off the shuttle and could provide crucial information.


Also on Friday, Nasa workers have commemorated the crew of Columbia who died when the spacecraft broke up on its way back to Earth six days ago.

Astronauts' coffins arrive at Dover air force base, Delaware
An honour guard met the astronauts' coffins

A memorial service was held on the runway at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where Columbia was scheduled to land.

All seven astronauts died when the shuttle's flight ended just 16 minutes short of touchdown on Saturday.

The names of all of them are to be engraved on the Space Mirror Memorial at Cape Canaveral.

The remains of Ilan Ramon - the first Israeli in space - are to be repatriated for burial. There are no details for funerals for the six American astronauts, who included Indian-born Kalpana Chawla.

Tributes have been paid to them from around the world.

President George W Bush led the mourning at a memorial service in Texas, while Vice-President Dick Cheney attended a service at the National Cathedral in Washington.

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See also:

07 Feb 03 | Americas
06 Feb 03 | Americas
05 Feb 03 | Americas
01 Feb 03 | Americas
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