A large piece of the destroyed space shuttle Challenger has been found at the bottom of the ocean

A large section of the US space shuttle Challenger has been found on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, more than 30 years after it exploded shortly after liftoff, killing all seven people on board, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center announced Thursday.

The section remains partially buried, but measures at least 4.5 by 4.5 meters . Judging by the shape of its heat shield tiles, NASA believes this piece is from the shuttle’s belly.

Divers working on a documentary for the History Channel examine the space shuttle Challenger’s thermal tiles (History channel via the AP)

The piece of shuttle was discovered in March by divers working on a History Channel documentary series about the Bermuda Triangle. They were looking for WWII plane wreckage, but were surprised to find something very different off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida . The documentary will air on Tuesday, November 22.

Noticing the “modern construction and the presence of 8-inch square tiles,” the production team alerted NASA, the agency said in a press release . After studying the video, NASA verified that it came from Challenger.

Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986, just 73 seconds after liftoff. The last order given to the shuttle was “Challenger, go ahead, accelerate”.

A spectacular explosion followed, followed by a stunning silence from television commentators and NASA launch commentator Steve Nesbitt . That silence ended when Nesbitt said, “The flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation…obviously a major malfunction…. we don’t have a downlink. »

The evidence points to a grim conclusion : The astronauts likely survived the initial explosion . Among other clues, the study of the wreckage revealed that at least three astronauts had activated their emergency oxygen supply.

As the shuttle was 30 km above sea level when it exploded, the six NASA crew members and schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe may have spent two minutes in a state of utter terror, knowing that they plunged towards certain death.

Challenger crew members training in a flight simulator a month before the disaster (Bill Bowers/NASA)

An investigation revealed that unexpected cold temperatures caused the O-rings in the seals of the shuttle’s solid thruster segments to fail. Flight controllers approved the launch despite concerns raised by shuttle program employees.

Although 118 tonnes of Challenger wreckage have been found so far, this is just under half of the total mass that took off that day . In 1986, the remains of the seven astronauts were recovered from the fragmented wreckage of the crew compartment. As The New York Times reported at the time, the crew compartment was “little more than a pile of rubble on the ocean floor, 2.5 meters high and 15 meters wide. “.

Despite the huge volume of material that has yet to be accounted for, this is the first new section of the shuttle discovered since 1996 , when two parts of the left wing were washed up on shore.

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