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Lightning Bolt Investigated in Shuttle Disaster

Federal scientists are reportedly investigating whether electricity in the upper atmosphere might have doomed the space shuttle Columbia as it soared over California.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports today that investigators are also reviewing recorded data that might have detected a faint thunderclap at the same time a purplish bolt of lightning may have struck the shuttle high above Earth. In a report published last year, researchers at NASA´s Kennedy Space Center raised concerns that electromagnetic phenomena or ice crystals from the highest clouds could pose a danger to shuttles on re-entry.

NASA administrators said yesterday that Columbia crash investigators were looking at the photograph of the purplish bolt, captured as a digital image by an amateur astronomer in San Francisco. But Shuttle Program Manager Ron Dittemore told reporters in Houston that NASA isn´t sure how important the image may be — or whether it´s even authentic.

The shuttle was 39 miles above Texas as it disintegrated early Saturday in the searing heat of re-entry, for reasons still unknown. All seven astronauts were killed.