NOAA TRACKS COLUMBIA’s BREAKUP
February 4, 2003 — Data from a network of NOAA wind profilers, usually used to help forecast the weather, may prove significant to NASA investigators as they search for pieces of debris from the space shuttle. The information could help reconstruct how and when the Columbia space shuttle came apart, as well as where the debris landed. (Click NOAA image for larger view of NOAA wind profiler network and approximate space shuttle re-entry telemetry. Click here for larger size image. Please credit “NOAA.”)
NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board have requested data collected by the wind profilers located in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. These systems operate automatically and without human intervention. The NOAA Forecast Systems Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., which operates the radar, sent CD-ROMs packed with data to the NOAA National Weather Service southern region headquarters in Ft. Worth, Texas, which is acting as the focal point for gathering NOAA data.
According to Margot Ackley, profiler division chief, “the information will assist investigators as they try to figure out the causes of the accident.”
“We are very proud that we can provide this key forensic data to NASA and help in the search for what really happened,” Ackley said. The unmanned profilers automatically acquire wind data continuously from near the ground up to 53,000 feet, enabling the times and horizontal and vertical positions of the falling fragments of Columbia to be captured in the data. The data are also expected to help in the recovery of pieces of the shuttle.
“Just as radar detect airplanes, NOAA radar can detect particles in the atmosphere and show their changing position as they descend through the atmosphere. The strength of the radar signals indicate the speed that the particles are falling as well as the size of the particles,” Ackley said. “In addition to being able to see debris, we measure speed and direction of the wind which will be another important data set for the analysis.”
The Louisiana profiler data showed a large number of particles that floated down through the atmosphere almost five hours after the shuttle accident. “The debris was falling at the speed of a snowflake,” according to NOAA meteorologist Douglas van de Kamp. “It was very lightweight and that’s why it took so long to fall through the atmosphere.”
The wind profiler network has operated for 10 years and has demonstrated its usefulness in supporting NOAA’s mission of environmental monitoring. It costs about $4 million to operate annually.