Wednesday 3 August 2011

Space Age Archaeology: Part of Space Shuttle Columbia found in Texas lake.

On the first of February 2003, after a 16 day mission studying microgravity and atmospheric chemistry, the Space Shuttle Columbia re-entered the Earth's atmosphere, and began its decent towards Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. Unfortunately the shuttle had sustained damage to the leading edge of one of its wings during takeoff, something that was not apparent to the crew who had no way of inspecting this part of the shuttle during flight. As the shuttle entered the atmosphere gasses superheated by the shuttle's speed entered the wing through the damaged area, melting the interior supports of the wing and causing the shuttle to break apart and causing the deaths of all seven crew members. Debris was scattered over a large area of eastern Texas, with only about 40% of the shuttle ever being recovered.

Footage of the final re-entry of Columbia.

On the 2nd of August 2011 the Nacogdoches Police Department announced the discovery of a spherical reactant storage tank from the shuttle the week before in Lake Nacogdoches, 250 km southeast of Dallas. The announcement was not made immediately, as police in Texas have had a number of false reports of shuttle parts in the past, and wished to have the find confirmed by NASA before making the announcement.

The Reactant Storage Tank from Columbia, on the bed of Lake Nacogdoches.

The sphere was a double walled thermally insulated tank used to store liquid hydrogen used as part of the shuttle's propulsion system. The hydrogen was reacted with oxygen (also stored as a liquid in insulated spherical tanks) as a fuel to generate electricity. (This came as a bit of a surprise to me, but I checked my son's toy Space Shuttle and it does indeed have spherical fuel storage tanks).

Texas has been suffering from an extreme drought this year, part of a pattern of extreme weather that has affected much of the US, which many people are attributing to global warming. This has caused problems for agriculture, industry and everyday life. Lake Nacogdoches is currently 3 m bellow its usual level for the time of year, exposing much of the lake bed.

The final flight of NASA's Shuttle Program ended on the 21st July 2011, leaving the US incapable of putting a man into space. For the time being US scientists working on the International Space Station will be transported their by the Russian Federal Space Agency, although relations between the US and Russia can still be a little erratic. The Russian Space Agency plans to end the Space Station Mission in 2020 by plunging the station into the Pacific Ocean (deemed safer than leaving it in orbit to fall apart).

17 June 2011. Space Shuttle Atlantis on the launch pad,
prior to it's, and the Shuttle Program's, last ever launch.

The US had been planing to replace the Shuttle Program with the Constellation Program, including a new manned space vehicle, Orion. Unfortunately this has been dropped due to America's ongoing financial crisis, and no replacement program seems likely. A number of private companies are attempting to develop their own space vehicles, such as the Sierra Nevada Corporation's Dream Chaser, Space Exploration Technologies' Dragon Spaceplane, Boeing's Orbital Space Plane and Orbital's Cygnus Service Module. Whether or not the US government will be able to make sufficient funds available to support any of these projects remains to be seen.

The China National Space Administration now has a Manned Spaceflight program, with the Shenzhou orbiter, and ambitious plans for Lunar Exploration. The Indian Human Spaceflight Program hopes to put a man in space before 2017, and also has long-term plans to explore the moon. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency has long term ambitions to build a lunar base and even mount a mission to Mars, but it does not yet have any human spaceflight capability.

Promotional video for the Shezhou Space Vehicle.