Columbia shuttle

Columbia: Questions of Some Gravity

This article contains updates added in April and June 2003

Columbia shuttleOn February 1, 2003, the space shuttle, Columbia, met its fiery end in the dangerous manoeuvre of supersonic re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Sadly, the crew of seven was lost. U.S. President Bush said, “In an age when space flight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket, and the difficulties of navigating the fierce outer atmosphere of the Earth.”

It is a prime example of the difficulties we must endure while technology far outpaces science. In fact a faulty understanding of the electrical nature of the cosmos may have been responsible for the tragedy.

In that context, a report, published on the west coast in the San Francisco Chronicle, makes interesting reading:

“Top investigators of the Columbia space shuttle disaster are analyzing a startling photograph — snapped by an amateur astronomer from a San Francisco hillside — that appears to show a purplish electrical bolt striking the craft as it streaked across the California sky.

The digital image is one of five snapped by the shuttle buff at roughly 5: 53 a.m. Saturday as sensors on the doomed orbiter began showing the first indications of trouble. Seven minutes later, the craft broke up in flames over Texas.”

” In the critical shot, a glowing purple rope of light corkscrews down toward the plasma trail, appears to pass behind it, then cuts sharply toward it from below. As it merges with the plasma trail, the streak itself brightens for a distance, then fades.”

This report has been discounted by lightning experts. However, the atmospheric region where the shuttle broke up has been dubbed the “ignorosphere” because of the lack of knowledge about its electrical state. Suggestions were made that the shuttle might have been struck by a “red sprite” – a poorly understood form of lightning seen above large thunderstorms. But that has been discounted as being too diffuse a discharge to do any damage. Besides, there were no thunderstorms beneath the shuttle at the time.

Conventional wisdom has it that red sprites are powered by the storms beneath them. That is wrong. They are powered from above, from space. And it is that electrical power, collected over a vast region that drives the lightning storms below. Further evidence of that regional discharge from space was actually provided by the ill-fated astronauts when they photographed a huge arc of light above thunderstorms in Africa.

The Earth is enveloped in a cosmic discharge, centered on the Sun. So it is no surprise in an ELECTRIC UNIVERSE® to have lightning from space follow the ionised trail of Columbia. The dense plasma trail left by the shuttle is an ideal “lightning rod” of vast dimensions that could easily give rise to the reported corkscrewing rope of purple light blazing down from above. The sudden brightening of the streak shows that power was being concentrated into a destructive arc near the shuttle.

It seems that conditions in the ionosphere led to a powerful lightning discharge to Columbia – a rare “bolt from the blue” – which may have damaged a critical component or surface of the space shuttle. The lightning would be practically silent in the thin atmosphere and it would burn like a plasma torch. And insulating material, like the shuttle tiles or their adhesive, may shatter or explode when struck by lightning.

The metallic surfaces of aircraft hit by lightning may show a little damage but it does not impair their airworthiness. Columbia, struck by a super-bolt while travelling at 12,000 mph, was terribly vulnerable. NASA might be advised to send a tiled wing panel for testing to a lightning research facility.

**UPDATE 2 April**

Columbia debris
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board released this photograph on Feb 27 of an area near the left main landing gear door - an area of intense interest. "The heat shield tiles appear almost lava like in appearance, certainly melted looking, indicating exposure to extreme heating."

The tiles do exhibit the kind of etched and melted appearance that might be expected from a plasma arc.

The upper atmosphere jet streams are an important consequence of the electrical energy input from space. When the earth encounters blasts of charged particles from the Sun, auroras increase, and the jet streams move south. Both are indicative of an increased electric current to the Earth. My colleague, Amy Acheson, noted that the edge of the jet stream was right over San Francisco about an hour before the alleged “lightning bolt” photo of the shuttle was taken. It may be useful to examine the position of jet streams with reference to thunderstorms in order to get a clearer picture of the electrical connection.

In 1998 it was reported by Professor Louis Frank and colleagues from the University of Iowa that auroras mysteriously show a tendency to hug coastlines. They write:

“… coastline arcs can be as thin as tens of miles, align along coastlines for several hundred miles, and last several minutes. The phenomenon normally occurs during the early phase of an auroral storm. Though scientists cannot yet explain why this coastline effect occurs, part of the answer seems to lie in the knowledge that ground currents are much greater off shore because sea water is a better conductor of electricity than the land.” “It would appear,” notes Frank, “that at certain times the ionosphere is primed for the generation of the thin arcs over the coastlines and that the arcs are tickled into brightening by the magnetic or electric fields from the ground currents. This is quite remarkable because these auroral lights are occurring at altitudes of 60 to 200 miles above the shores.”

This discovery indicates the possibility that a high altitude discharge could have been triggered near the U.S. coastline by a rare combination of circumstances.

I agree with NASA experts who discount the possibility of damage to the shuttle wing upon takeoff from a piece of lightweight foam.

A report in the NY Times of 1 April says that new information retrieved from Columbia’s flight recorder suggests that the reinforced carbon-carbon leading edge panels on the left wing may have already been damaged before the shuttle began re-entry. The reason is that severe heating was registered by one of the sensors (up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit before it failed) while the shuttle was still at an altitude above 50 miles, where the atmosphere is exceedingly thin.

But there is another possibility. Columbia may have been undamaged before it was struck by a powerful cosmic discharge during re-entry. Then the most concentrated damage would occur where the plasma formed around the craft on re-entry was most dense – at a point, or points, along the leading edges of the wings or nose of the craft. The carbon composition of the leading edge panels might act as a poor lightning conductor and cause them to suffer sudden extreme heating and explosive ablation. The loss of a panel or panels from the leading edge of the wing is very likely in this scenario. Aerodynamic heating and possible ignition of aluminum structural members exposed inside the wing could plausibly follow and result in the shuttle’s demise, only minutes later.

Of course this possibility is not being investigated because experts know it can’t happen.


**UPDATE 7 June**


Houston Chronicle, 4 June 2003

Researchers who measured sound waves outside space shuttle Columbia during its return to Earth helped rule out a meteor impact or lightning strike as a cause for its demise.

A team that studied low-frequency sound waves from the shuttle’s turbulent passage through the atmosphere Feb. 1 at speeds above Mach 20 released their preliminary results Wednesday.

You will notice that the researchers were recording low-frequency sound waves. That presupposes that the origin of the lightning was in the denser atmosphere below the spacecraft. What I am suggesting is that the strike came from above, which is not considered a possibility by earth scientists.

A strike from above would produce very little sound in the extremely thin atmosphere at the Shuttle’s height. What is more, the frequencies associated with it would have been high, more like a hiss than a thunderous rumble. Rustling or swishing sounds have been reported in the far north from low auroras, a well-known form of upper atmospheric electrical discharge.

Using a dozen sensor arrays spread across the United States and Canada, the researchers said they were unable to definitively say whether Columbia exploded or broke up more slowly.

“Most of what we were able to contribute to NASA was to rule out things that people had hypothesized,” said Henry Bass, a University of Mississippi professor who led the research team.

Had Columbia been struck by lightning or a meteor, the event would have produced a characteristic sound the arrays would have picked up, Bass said. There were no such signals.

If the reported images snapped by an amateur astronomer from a San Francisco hillside are genuine then they still remain to be explained by experts. That lightning was specifically addressed in this report suggests that the images are genuine and should be released for public scrutiny. Dismissing the phenomenon and losing the data in a filing drawer because you don’t believe it possible is an all-too-common failing of science. My explanation is the only one I am aware of that relates such a crucial observation to a possible cause of the Columbia disaster.

“It is really quite amazing by what margins competent but conservative scientists and engineers can miss the mark, when they start with the preconceived idea that what they are investigating is impossible. When this happens, the most well-informed men become blinded by their prejudices and are unable to see what lies directly ahead of them.”
– Arthur C. Clarke


The Columbia disaster seems to have prompted an opportunistic article in WIRED magazine. The article highlights a new technology that is said to make possible a science-fiction idea publicized by Arthur C. Clarke in his 1978 novel, Fountains of Paradise, – the space elevator. Theoretically, it could provide a far cheaper method of reaching space. But is this technology too far ahead of the science?

To the Moon in a Space Elevator?

By Steve Kettmann
See story
02:00 AM Feb. 04, 2003 PT

The Columbia disaster could spur faster development of a radically different approach to reaching outer space: the space elevator.

Space elevator
Artist Pat Rawling's concept of a space elevator viewed from the geostationary transfer station looking down along the length of the elevator toward Earth.

More information

Long imagined by science-fiction writers but seen by others as hopelessly far-fetched, the space-elevator concept has advanced dramatically in recent years along with leaps forward in the design of carbon nanotubes. Using the lightweight, strong carbon material, it’s feasible to talk of building a meter-wide “ribbon” that would start on a mobile ocean platform at the equator, west of Ecuador, and extend 62,000 miles up into space.

Carbon nanotubeCarbon nanotube (CNT) is a new form of carbon, equivalent to a flat graphene sheet rolled into a tube. CNT exhibits extraordinary mechanical properties: the Young’s modulus is over 1 Tera-Pascal and the estimated tensile strength is 200 Giga-Pascals.

An elevator could be attached to this ribbon to ferry materials such as satellites and replacement parts for space stations — or even people — up into space. The project could become a reality as soon as 15 years from now, experts say.

” Technically it’s feasible,” said Robert Cassanova, director of the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts. “There’s nothing wrong with the physics.”

Here we have another example where technology has outstripped science.

So, when Robert Cassanova says “There’s nothing wrong with the physics” we may be sure that he means the old, electrically sterile physics applied to the cosmos.

The continual cosmic discharge, which powers the storms on Earth, must be considered when placing long conductors radially to the Earth. Some years ago, the tethered satellite experiment suffered a plasma discharge that severed the tether cable as it was being reeled out from the space shuttle. That phenomenon will be repeated on a grand scale in any attempt to stretch a conducting elevator cable from Earth into space. The power that drives regional thunderstorms will be concentrated into a single cataclysmic thunderbolt, destroying the elevator cable like a thin fuse wire. In the worst scenario, the 50km high ground station will be replaced by a neat, circular crater, like those seen elsewhere in the solar system and attributed, erroneously, to meteoric impacts.

Gravity is the problem, understanding it is the solution.

The space shuttle is a technological marvel that must harness brute chemical and aerodynamic forces in order to overcome the weak force of gravity. The reason for such an approach is that we do not understand gravity. When we finally understand it, it is likely that we will find much gentler means of leaving the Earth and returning. Until that time, manned space travel will remain ridiculously expensive and hazardous.

But wait a minute, didn’t Einstein give us our understanding of gravity? The physicist, Herman Bondi, put it most succinctly: “Wherever gravitation can be seen in action, it is well described by the theory, but its logical contact with the rest of physics is dubious.” Bondi also asked a crucial question, “if it [gravitation] is something so fundamental to matter, one might hope that one day it will throw light on the constitution of matter and on the nature of the elementary particles and forces from which it is composed. However, no relevant experiments are possible because the gravitational forces due to minute particles are so utterly minute.”

That is a curious insight, given that Einstein’s theory of gravitation makes the gravitational field a property of space, rather than matter. It is little wonder that after close to a century of concentrated effort, including that of Einstein himself, no connection has been possible between gravity and the quantum behavior of matter or between gravity and the electromagnetic atomic forces. Einstein’s view dismisses the idea that anti-gravity is possible and has powerfully discouraged serious investigation of the subject.

I believe Bondi was both right and wrong. He was right in that we should look to a fundamental property of matter for the origin of the gravitational force. He was wrong when he wrote that no relevant experiments are possible. The famous Millikan oil drop experiment was one in which the gravitational force of the entire Earth upon a tiny oil drop was balanced by the electrical force on a single electron. Sensitive gravitational experiments on atomic particles are possible when we use the entire mass of the Earth as the source of the test gravitational field. This is essentially what is done in anti-gravity experiments.

Fritz LondonEinstein published his theory of gravitation, or general theory of relativity, in 1916. And so a new paradigm, or set of beliefs, was established. It was not until 1930 that Fritz London explained the weak, attractive dipolar electric bonding force (known as Van der Waals’ dispersion force or the “London force”) that causes gas molecules to condense and form liquids and solids. Like gravity, the London force is always attractive and operates between electrically neutral molecules.And that precise property has been the most puzzling distinction between gravity and the powerful electromagnetic forces, which may repel as well as attract.

So it seems the clue about the true nature of gravity has been available to chemists – who are not interested in gravity – and unavailable to physicists – who are not interested in physical chemistry (and view the world through Einstein’s distorting spectacles). Look at any average general physics textbook and you will find no reference to Van der Waals’ or London forces. What a different story might have been told if London’s insight had come a few decades earlier? Physics could, by now, have advanced by a century instead of being bogged in a mire of metaphysics.

An excellent illustrated lesson on the London force, or Van der Waals’ dispersion force is given at:

The London force originates in fluctuating electric dipoles caused by slight distortion of otherwise electrically neutral atoms and molecules. The tiny electric dipoles arise because the orbiting electrons, at any given instant, cannot shield the positive charge of the nucleus equally in all directions. The result, amongst a group of similar atoms or molecules is that the electric dipoles tend to resonate and line up so that they attract each other.

Obviously, gravity is distinct from the London force. It is much, much weaker. That should be a clue. What if we are looking at gravity being due to a similar electrostatic distortion effect in the far smaller constituents of each atom? Of course, this is heresy because the electron is supposed to be a fundamental particle, with no smaller constituent particles. However, there are experiments that challenge this belief. What ismore, this model of an electron offers a simple mechanism to explain quantum theory and the relationship between magnetism and the electric force.

It explains the puzzling observation that electrons don’t simply radiate their orbital energy away and crash into the nucleus. It is because electrons in an atom store and release internal energy during each orbit in the form of varying electric dipole distortion. So a stable orbit is achieved simply when the energy exchange between the electron and the nucleus sums to zero over each orbit. It is the resonant electron orbits that determine the quantum nature of atomic interactions. The same resonances apply withinthe compound atomic nucleus. If we apply the London force model, both protons and neutrons form resonant structures of electrostatic dipoles that are powerfully attractive because of their closeness, unlike a simple Coulomb electrostatic model that would have the positively charged nucleus fly apart. It explains the need for neutrons to give stability to a compound nucleus. And in the process, it allows the normally unstable neutron to adopt a stable resonant configuration. Such a model suggests that a neutronstar is a theoretical figment of overzealous mathematicians.

If gravity is an electrostatic induced dipole-dipole force between the fundamental particles of normal matter, then it cannot be shielded because all matter, whether charged or not, will participate. And herein lies the difficulty for antigravity devices. How to modify the strength of those fundamental particle dipoles, or better, to invert them? I have discussed some attempts that seem to have succeeded in offsetting the dipoles slightly from the Earth’s radius. See Antigravity?

There is another important consequence of taking into account atomic electric dipole effects. A ponderous body will introduce an additional dipole effect, that of the gravitational offset of the heavy nucleus from the centre of the atom. This effect can set up a radial electric field that may lead to charge separation and stratification in the conducting interior of a body, particularly stars and gas giants. In that case, electrostatic repulsion between similar charges will serve to offset compression due to gravity. The usual determination of density will therefore tell us nothing about the internal structure and composition of such a body. Certainly, such powerful electrical forces will prevent gravitational collapse and the formation of mythical neutron stars andblack holes. The evidence presented for the existence of such objects is already explained by cosmic electric discharge activity.

A new technology based on the obvious electrical nature of matter will look quite different from that based upon our Victorian vintage science. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote;

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

We are long overdue for some magic!

Wal Thornhill

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