February 07, 2003

News Flash!

The San Francisco Chronicle put together a very readable, and apparently exclusive, story today on how electronic disturbances leaping through the upper atmosphere might have caused the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia.

The story, played under the effectively tabloidish headline "Cosmic bolt probed in shuttle disaster," demonstrates how knowledge - in this case Sabin Russell's background in science and technology reporting - initiative, strong, clear writing and a good graphic illustration can combine to produce a compelling story about an unexplained event.

Here's what happened: An amateur San Francisco astronomer, who for now has chosen to keep his name out of the press, used a digital camera to make a photograph of the eastward-bound Columbia streaking over California. To the photographer's amazement, the image showed a "purplish, luminous corkscrew" apparently striking the spacecraft.

When NASA sent a former astronaut to the photographer's house to review the image, "a Chronicle reporter was present when the astronaut arrived. First seeing the image on a large computer screen, she had one word: 'Wow.'"

That's good stuff.

It is easier to write about scientific phenomena when they have other-worldly names such as "sprites, blue jets and elves," as these do, but Russell patiently and cleverly weaves fact and anecdote to explain the mysteries of high reaches of the sky.

For example:

"Physicists have long jokingly referred to the lower reaches of the ionosphere -- which fluctuates in height around 40 miles -- as the 'ignorosphere,' due to the lack of understanding of this mysterious realm of rarefied air and charged electric particles."


"Originally, it was thought that the electrical charges in the thin atmosphere 50 miles above Earth were too dispersed to create infrasound. But Los Alamos National Laboratories physicist Mark Stanley said that, on closer inspection, 'we've seen very strong ionization in sprites' indicating that there were enough air molecules ionized to cause heating and an accompanying pulse -- a celestial thunderclap, as it were."

Of course, maybe the amateur astronomer didn't photograph a sprite or a blue jet. Maybe his camera trembled just enough during the time exposure to cause a streak, but, as Russell writes, "should the photo turn out to be an authentic image of an electrical event on Columbia, it would not only change the focus of the crash investigation, but it could open a door on a new realm of science."

 San Francisco Chronicle Cosmic bolt probed in shuttle disaster
 Scientific American Blue Jets May Link Thunderstorms to the Ionosphere

Posted by Tim Porter at February 7, 2003 07:37 AM