Physics: Principles and Problems


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What Went Wrong in Columbia's Final Minutes?
March 2003

On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Columbia was due to land in Florida only 15 minutes later. Why did Columbia self destruct? What went wrong? These are questions that NASA and much of the international space community are trying to answer.

The orbiter of the space shuttle is primarily made of aluminum alloy panel and graphite epoxy materials. Silica glass tiles and blankets as well as carbon materials cover the exterior of the orbiter and help protect it from the extreme temperatures (nearly 3,000° F) experienced during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. These temperatures are produced because of the friction between the atmosphere and the hull. Any failure in the protective devices on the exterior of the orbiter could cause the orbiter to overheat and be destroyed.

Re-entry begins at an altitude of about 400,000 ft and at a speed 25 times the speed of sound. The angle of re-entry depends on the landing site and flight path, but must be maintained exactly, or the orbiter could be damaged or destroyed.

Investigators are examining all possibilities including the loss of insulating tiles, an explosion in the fuel tanks, or a structural failure in the framework of the orbiter itself. Examination of debris gathered across a large portion of Texas and Louisiana and evidence of a heat spike detected by a weather satellite currently supports a hypothesis that there was a problem with the exterior of the craft, causing significant temperature spikes in several areas of the orbiter including the tires and left wing. The exact cause of the heat spikes has yet to be determined. Debris from the left solid rocket booster external tank did break off during lift off and struck the orbiter on the left wing. Investigators are looking into the possibility that the debris may have damaged the protective tiles on the left wing.

The investigation into the Columbia tragedy goes on. It is unlikely that shuttle flights will resume until NASA is convinced that no such tragedy will occur again.

Activity
Follow the continuing investigation of the Columbia break up. Are there any new hypotheses being presented? What new evidence is being presented and which hypothesis does it support? Review the history of space flight, what advances in space craft design have allowed astronauts to stay in space longer, perform experiments, and return to space more frequently.

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Physics: Principles and Problems