A drought in Texas has revealed a piece of space shuttle Columbia, destroyed on re-entry over the state on 1 February, 2003.
The 40-inch spherical reactant tank emerged from the waters of Lake Nacogdoches, close to Nacogdoches in eastern Texas, where a substantial amount of Columbia debris fell following the disaster.
Nacogdoches police sent NASA a photo of the aluminium object, and one of the original shuttle engineers was able to confirm its provenance. NASA spokeswoman Lisa Malone told Space.com: "One of the guys had been here more than 30 years and recognized it, and said, 'That's one of the tanks'."
Malone said NASA is now looking to reunite the piece with other Columbia debris in Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building. She explained: "We're working the plans and details out right now as to how we would get it shipped back here. We do want to collect the debris items and keep them in one place."
The reactant tank – one of 16 onboard Columbia used for storing liquid hydrogen and oxygen – will join the roughly 38 to 40 per cent of the shuttle's remains which have been recovered. The rest burned up on re-entry or still lie where they fell to Earth.
Malone said: "From time to time throughout the year we do get phone calls and emails from people about items they think are debris."
The Columbia disaster was caused by a piece of foam insulation from the shuttle's external fuel tank which flew off during launch and punched a hole in the spacecraft's left wing leading edge. The resulting damage to the thermal protection system allowed hot gas to enter the wing during re-entry, causing the vehicle to disintegrate.
NASA concluded that the crew – commander Rick Husband; pilot William McCool; mission specialists David Brown, Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark; payload commander Michael Anderson; and payload specialist Ilan Ramon – were killed by a rapid cabin depressurisation.
Malone admitted that new discoveries of Columbia debris "opens old wounds". She said: "It always makes you think about the accident and Columbia and the crew of course. It always does serve as a reminder."
There's more, and a photo of the reactant tank, here. ®