The torch of plasma, or superheated atmospheric gas, that investigators believe brought down the shuttle Columbia might have been leaving the craft's wheel well, not entering it, having cut a channel of destruction all the way from the leading edge of the wing near the fuselage, officials involved with the inquiry said Saturday.
The new theory of the loss of the shuttle is gaining prominence on the board led by Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., but no single theory has emerged as a clear leader yet, one official said, according to the New York Times.
The official indicated that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the board are beginning to close in on the causes of the shuttle's breakup.
The picture of the shuttle's final moments is emerging as thousands of small points of data resolve into a larger image. The data the investigative board are drawing on include the condition of debris, the readings from sensors captured in NASA's computers as the shuttle began to lose control, and the information gleaned from computer models that researchers run to see which best match the known facts.
About 22,000 pieces of the shuttle have been found, and investigators are learning much by identifying which parts are missing.
Many of the reinforced panels at the leading edge of the left wing have been found, for example, but some have not _ most compellingly, in the area close to where the wing is attached to the fuselage. The notion that the plasma was already inside the shuttle structure when it reached the wheel well would help to explain one oddity of the collected debris so far: damage to a wheel well door that appears to show a hole that goes from the inside out, with the damage perpendicular to the direction of travel.
Investigators say other evidence seems to point to this conclusion, including a fuzzy photograph taken as the shuttle passed over Albuquerque, N.M. The photo appears to show disruption at the leading edge of the wing and some kind of flow trailing off the back of the wing.
That departing flow could be evidence of the plasma, the official said, according to the New York Times.