Image Of Shuttle Columbia Just Before Breakup Taken With Help From 11-Year Old Mac

The recent shuttle disaster has left many of us stunned and wondering exactly what went wrong. As the investigation continues as to how the Columbia loss occurred, one tiny tidbit of information from an unlikely source could help shed some light on what exactly happened.

The Associated Press reports that the now famous photo that shows the underside of Columbia as it entered Earthis atmosphere was not taken by highly sophisticated optics and equipment at the Starfire Optical Range, as earlier believed. The photo was the result of a cobbled-together rig comprised of an off-the-shelf telescope and old Macintosh. The set-up was put together by people at Starfire out of personal interest. From the AP article titled Now-Famous Shuttle Photo Snapped by Researchers Using Old Equipment :

The shadowy, closely-analyzed photo of space shuttle Columbiais 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 Feb. 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 shuttleis wing shortly before it broke apart.

But contrary to reports last week, the photo was not snapped by one of Starfireis 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 3 1/2-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 rangeis 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. Thatis really all it was."

For more information, please read the full story at the AP Tampa Online Web site. The image can be found in images that accompany NASAis Technical Briefing ST-107.