One of 18 fuel tanks that flew aboard the U.S. space shuttle Columbia, which broke apart as it re-entered the atmosphere for landing on Feb. 1, 2003, has been found in a lake in drought-stricken Texas.
"This is one of the bigger pieces," says NASA's Lisa Malone, head of public affairs at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the Columbia debris is stored.
The space center got a call late last week from police officers in Texas who were asking for help identifying a large spherical tank newly exposed in the receding water of Lake Nacogdoches.
It was a match to gas tanks on a pallet in Columbia, enabling its seven member crew, which included Israel's Ilan Ramon, to stay in space conducting research for 16 days.
As Columbia flew through the atmosphere for landing, its left wing, which had been damaged by a debris strike during launch, broke off, triggering the ship's destruction over East Texas and Louisiana and killing the crew.
Malone said NASA will retrieve the tank and add it to the rest of the recovered wreckage, which is stored inside the shuttle's Vehicle Assembly Building.
Unlike the Challenger debris, which was buried in an abandoned missile silo at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, NASA wanted to make pieces recovered from Columbia available to researchers, in the hopes that more can be learned to benefit future space travelers.
(Receding waters of Lake Nacogdoches in Texas reveal a sizeable piece of debris from the 2003 Columbia accident. Credit: Nacogdoches Police Department for NASA)