Shuttle Columbia Disaster: Wrong Place, Wrong Time! Summary Version

by Guy Cramer

Shuttle's demise linked to an unexpected interaction of Astrophysics, Geophysics, Electrophysics and just bad timing.

Due to the technical nature of this paper I have provided a shortened summary here in easier to read format. If you want to view the entire paper with the additional, information pictures and diagrams go here Full Paper


Feb 1, 2003 23:10 UT = 8:10 AM EST: The Space Shuttle Columbia is a go from NASA for Deorbit landing procedures. Within minutes ACE and SOHO satellites, located upstream of the Solar wind detect a rare abrupt increase in solar wind speed known as a shockwave that will reach Earth 43 minutes later.

Columbia goes through expected communications blackout as it travels through the ionosphere.

The Double Delta Wing of the Shuttle with increased drag and resistance might have been prone to problems with increased ionization where the vortexes occur (the point where the wing angles as seen in wind tunnel testing of another Double-Delta wing aircraft in the picture on the right).

At the peak the Shuttle experiences the highest heating and ionization from friction of the atmosphere, it automatically banks hard right to dissipate speed. The Shuttle Wing is a Double Delta wing, specifically used as the forward placed delta wing creates vortices that flow smoothly over the main delta wing which creates greater lift and reduces drag. In this steep bank, the left wing is now taking the brunt of the heat and ionization while the vortices from the double-delta of the left wing would be much greater than those on the right wing, everything to this point is within normal expected parameters.

In 1973 the navy satellite Triad detected current sheets running up and down the polar regions of the sunlight morning and evening boundaries, these sheets carries a million amperes or more. Solar shockwaves can push Auroral areas towards the equator. Columbia, due to its altitude enters sunlight over California. The Shockwave arrives, this increase in the solar wind compresses the magnetosphere, very little is understood about the interaction between shockwave events and high altitude effects.

Just as Columbia is over San Francisco within the ionosphere, entering sunlight, crossing a potential current sheet, while in a high right bank, with greater than normal vortexes created by the left double delta wing, as the solar wind shockwave hits the magnetosphere, an astronomer takes a picture of Columbia overhead and captures a luminous purple corkscrew object hitting the Shuttle.

The apparent lightning strike was probably following the highest charged area of the shuttle which may have been the vortexes coming from the left double delta where the two angles of the delta meet, due to the right banking of the Shuttle at the time.  Whether ionization, heat or even sound from this apparent lightning discharge, the problem was small to begin with such as one of the airtight seals opening, sensors within the wheel well indicate only slight temperature rises at first. The Soviet shuttle Buran, made after but based of the Space Shuttle design, showed that the heat shield was prone to acoustic (sound) testing causing the Soviets to redesign their heat shield.

Once the internal structure was compromised, given the altitude and speed, little if anything could have been done to stop the ensuing damage from spreading to the point the thrust rockets could not compensate for drag and aerodynamics problems.

Had the Shuttle begun the deorbited a few minutes earlier or a few minutes later, had it not crossed into daylight, had the rare shockwave not happened at just that time...The shuttle happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.


Shockwaves detected by ACE and SOHO must be factored into future spacecraft landings and launching, any sign of a shockwave and the landing must be delayed. Landings and launchings should also take place when the landing path is not in sunlight so the spacecraft doesn't cross either the morning or evening sunlight transitions to avoid potential charged sheets in the ionosphere. The Russian results on acoustic testing of the Barun project should be reviewed for potential changes to the heat shield and structure modifications.

If you want to view the entire paper with the additional information, pictures and diagrams go here Full Paper

Go to the Home Page 

This material is Copyright 2003, by Guy Cramer, All Rights Reserved.
This material cannot be reproduced in any form without the expressed written permission of the Author. Whole Copies may be printed for personal use; no changes are to be made to the content, names or references.

Hit Counter