A piece of debris from the doomed space shuttle Columbia has been found in a lake in Texas after drought caused the water levels to recede, exposing the relic eight years after it fell to Earth.
Police in Nacogdoches called Nasa after a 4ft-wide sphere that plunged from the spacecraft as it broke up during its return to Earth on February 1, 2003, was found sitting in mud on the north side of the local lake.
More than 84,000 pieces of wreckage from Columbia rained down on Texas and Louisiana as the spacecraft disintegrated at hypersonic speed, just minutes before it had been due to land at Kennedy Space Centre, Florida.
Shuttle debris landed across Texas and into Louisiana as the shuttle streaked back towards a landing at the Kennedy Space Center. The shuttle exploded 16 minutes landing
Seven astronauts were killed in the disaster, which occurred during atmospheric re-entry as hot gases seeped into a hole that had been knocked in the left wing during Columbia’s launch 16 days earlier.
Millions watched in horror as television cameras captured images of the shuttle trailing smoke and shedding debris 230,000ft (62kms) above the Earth while travelling at 12,000mph. In Texas, people heard sonic booms and felt the shockwave from its break-up.
Nasa confirmed today that the object found in Lake Nacogdoches was part of Columbia’s power reactant and storage distribution system, which held the cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen necessary for the vehicle’s fuel cells to produce electricity in space.
Lisa Malone, director of public affairs at Kennedy Space Centre, Florida, said: 'We have confirmed it as one of the 16 tanks that we had flying on board Columbia as part of the orbiter's electrical distribution system. It's definitely ours.'
The Columbia takes off January 16, 2003. On the right is a video image released by NASA that shows debris falling off the external tank at approximately 80-84 seconds after lift off
In these images made from video, combined from left to right in chronological order, trails from the debris of the space shuttle are seen in the sky over Texas on February 1, 2003.
Between 38 and 40 per cent of Columbia has been recovered in the eight years since the disaster. All of it is stored under climate-controlled conditions and out of public view. Some has been used by forensic analysts and scientists at institutions around the world to learn more about how spacecraft materials react during atmospheric re-entry and at hypersonic speeds.
'Now and then we hear from citizens, sometimes from hunters, who are out in rural areas and find a piece of debris. They call and send us pictures, we validate whether it is a piece of the shuttle Columbia and we arrange for all of it to come back here to Florida,' said Ms Malone.
The space agency is arranging for a team to retrieve this piece and return it to Kennedy Space Centre, where the bulk of the shuttle’s wreckage is still stored on the 16th floor of Nasa’s Vehicle Assembly Building.
The found wreckage of the space shuttle is seen in March 2003 on a grid in a hangar at the Kennedy Space Center. The shape of the orbiter on the grid is with the nose in the foreground.
The debris is now catalogued in storage
Each piece was numbered and catalogued to help investigators to piece together the shattered spacecraft like a giant jigsaw puzzle in the search for clues to its demise, and the geographical location at which each piece was found was plotted using global positioning satellite technology.
Divers assisted the search at the time, scouring lakes for Columbia relics, while horses, tractors and four-wheel drive vehicles were called on to haul larger pieces from where they fell. Among the wreckage, remains of some of the astronauts were also recovered.
Nacogdoches, a community of 33,000 people that touts itself as the oldest town in Texas, was central to the search operation. Residents were warned not to touch the wreckage.
The Columbia mission crew were honored posthumously with the highest award given within NASA, the Congressional Space Medal of Honour
'We want to remind everyone that the rules are the same as they were back in 2003….it is government property, and it is a criminal offence to tamper with it,' said Sergeant Greg Sowell of the Nacogdoches Police Department.
The Columbia disaster led to a two-year suspension of Nasa’s space shuttle fleet, pending an enquiry and safety review, and ultimately a decision to wind down the shuttle programme to make way for new vehicles. Atlantis, the last of the shuttles to fly, completed its final mission last month.
The astronauts aboard Columbia mission STS-107 – commander Rick Husband, 45, pilot Willie McCool, 41, and crewmates David Brown, 46, Kalpana Chawla, 41, Laurel Clark, 41, Michael Anderson, 43, and Ilan Ramon, 48 - were honored posthumously with the highest award given within Nasa; the Congressional Space Medal of Honour.
This 14 April, 1981 NASA file photo shows the Space Shuttle Columbia landing at the end of the first space shuttle mission