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Wing panel likely detached from shuttle in orbit
Posted: Wed, Apr 2, 2003, 10:21 AM ET (1521 GMT)
STS-107 patch (NASA) Columbia accident investigators said Tuesday that they believe an object seen floating away from the shuttle while in orbit was most likely a panel from near the leading edge of the left wing. The object was seen on radar slowly moving away from the shuttle a day after launch, and experts speculated whether the object was from the shuttle or a piece of orbital debris. Radar tests of shuttle components now lead investigators to conclude that the object is a carrier panel located between the reinforced carbon-carbon panels of the leading edge and the tiles on the underside of the wing. The investigators caution that they are not certain the debris is a carrier panel, nor do they know why the panel remained attached during launch if it was hit by falling foam from the external tank only to come off once in orbit. Investigators are also looking into the role peeling paint may have played to weaken the leading edge panels. Zinc oxide in paint flaking off the launch tower can react with the carbon-carbon material, creating tiny pinholes that could have weakened the panels or allowed hot plasma to break through during reentry.
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