Thursday, February 13
The shadowy, closely analyzed photo of space shuttle Columbia's underside was not snapped with cutting-edge military equipment, but by three researchers playing around with an old computer and a home telescope in their free time, officials said Wednesday.
The grainy photo was made February 1 at the Starfire Optical Range at Kirtland Air Force Base and released Friday by NASA. It shows what appears to be a suspicious bulge on the shuttle's wing shortly before it broke apart.
But contrary to reports last week, the photo was not snapped by one of Starfire's extraordinarily powerful telescopes, which are designed to spy on enemy satellites and detect incoming missiles.
Instead, it was taken by Starfire Optical Range engineers who, in their free time, had rigged up a device using a commercially available 31/2-inch telescope and an 11-year-old Macintosh computer, the researchers said.
"We were not asked by NASA to do this," said Robert Fugate, the optical range's technical director. "There was no official project or tasking to do this. The people who work here are geeks. This was an opportunity to look at a rapidly moving object and try to take a picture of it. That's really all it was."