'Photograph shows cracks on shuttle's wing'

Jerusalem - The Israeli newspaper Maariv on Monday published a picture of the American space shuttle Columbia apparently showing two cracks on its left wing.

The picture was taken 11 days before the shuttle broke up on its way back to Earth on Saturday, killing all seven crew members.

The photograph was extracted from footage taken by a camera onboard the shuttle during a live satellite video conference between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Colonel Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli to travel to space.

During the 15-minute conversation with Sharon and other Israeli officials, Ramon offered to share his view of Earth from the shuttle.

The video caught part of the shuttle's left wing, showing two "long" cracks, according to the newspaper.

The fissures could have been the cause of the technical problems experienced by the shuttle which led to its breakup over Texas, 16 minutes before it was due to land, the newspaper stated.

"Even if Nasa had discovered the cracks that appeared at take-off, it would not have been able to do anything to save the crew," the article read.

The newspaper report drew a guarded response from Tim Stevenson, an engineer at the Space Research Centre at Britain's University of Leicester.

In a telephone interview Stevenson said that although he had not seen the pictures, what appeared to be cracks might actually be a trick of light.

"You can't see very much of the wing from inside the space station," he said.

"It may be that the shot you see there is of antennas. There are thin wires that run along the hinge of the payload bay doors and (in a picture) they would appear in contrast. They would appear over the wing as a thin line."

He added: "To be honest, the crew would have observed (a big crack) very quickly, particularly if it was big enough to be observed in any kind of video footage, and they would have acted very differently if they had observed it."

Another point, he said, was that a large, visible crack on the top surface of the wing "would manifest itself as a structural failure very early on.

"Given the point at which Nasa said the break-up occurred, the shuttle would have already undertaken its S-turn manoeuvres (to slow its descent), which are relatively stressful.

"To put it bluntly, if the wing was going to break up, it was going to break up a long time before that point," he said.

Nasa's space shuttle programme director Ron Dittemore said on Sunday that Columbia had seen a significant rise in temperature on the left side in the minutes leading to its disintegration.

Dittemore said the drag on the left increased and the onboard computer tried to correct it by bringing the shuttle to the right.

The drag could be "indicative" of a missing heat tile or a rough tile on one of the wings.

The shuttle had 24 000 protective tiles that resist the intense heat which envelopes the craft as it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere.

Dittemore emphasised that there was no firm theory as to the cause of the disaster, stressing that the investigation was continuing. - Sapa-AFP

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