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  Columnist: Tammy A. Branom

Image credit: US Navy

Lightning crashes

Posted on Tuesday, 5 April, 2011 | 2 comments
Columnist: Tammy A. Branom

Recently, I was going through some old TV shows that I had saved and ended up finding and watching a National Geographic program “Megalightning.” As the title indicates, the show covered newly (at the time) discovered lightning above the clouds, which have been named Sprites. This lightning was first believed to be shooting up into space from large storms on earth below. However, upon further inspection, Sprites were discovered to be firing down in a multitude of filaments and, as the atmosphere becomes heavier, the filaments intertwine into one massive bolt into the clouds. This results in a POSITIVE lightning bolt.

Most lightning is negatively charged. Passenger jets flying above the clouds and are designed to withstand an average negative-charge lightning strike. However, according to the NatGeo story, the positive charge lightning is up to 10 times stronger than negative lightning and commercial planes have no protection from this type of strike. Therefore, as told in the story, a lightning strike from a positive bolt would result in the destruction of the plane. This may account for some “mysterious” plane crashes in the past.

The question was raised regarding the shuttles. The hull of the shuttle is not as thick as that of a commercial airliner, therefore, a positive lightning strike could and would be just a deadly. It seems, however, that NASA disregarded the information presented to them from the scientific teams investigating megalightning. The teams concluded that megalightning strikes with odds of one in one hundred. To me, that sounded like pretty good odds of being struck, but apparently NASA didn’t think so. The teams’ findings were also backed by a former Cold War agent who developed and used equipment that was designed to listen for and locate atomic or nuclear blasts (testing) from other nations around the world--particularly our enemy--the USSR (Russia). Using a modified version, this former government employee was able to detect the sub-audible sounds made by Sprites. Since thunder is the sound of lightning, Sprites HAD to have a sound. In the program, the sound--a low “thump” type of sound (to me)--was played.

This low “thump” was to be heard again later in a much more sinister context, because, as it came to be known, the shuttle Columbia was testing for megalightning.

On February 1, 2003, as the shuttle descended to earth, a man in San Francisco was snapping photos of the entry. Within moments of it passing by, he heard of the shuttle disaster. Upon examining his photos, he found that a purple bolt intersected with the shuttle trail and an obvious illumination appeared to the shuttle itself. The amateur photographer went to the media, which in turn released an article the next day. NASA was all over this! They sent an agent to confiscate all of the photos and the camera for investigation, supposedly by force.

Well, as with all things government, there was an official determination. I remember that first came the excuse that the camera was defective. When the camera company retaliated by saying that their camera had no such defects, the story quickly changed. The purple squiggle was now caused by the photographer wiggling the camera when he took the picture.

I recall soon after NASA’s intervention, the SF photographer’s actual photos were taken down from sites that had posted them. An article from had them sometime after everything seemed to calm down, but they have since been removed by the “demand of the photographer.” I have to wonder who is doing the actual demanding here. Could the government be behind his “demand?” On Wikipedia, “The Purple Steak Image” as it is titled there, is only two sentences long, the second of which is: “The CAIB (Columbia Accident Investigation Board) report concluded that image was the result of "camera vibrations during a long-exposure”. There is no photo of the purple streak.

Now, the posted pictures available online are only stills from the NatGeo documentary. I feel sorry for the photographer. Apparently, he was the scapegoat.

Here’s the clincher to the whole story. The former Cold War agent on the NatGeo special ran a tape of the shuttle’s return through his equipment. Just seconds before the explosion, a low “thump” very similar (in fact, I would say the same) to that of a Sprite could be heard. The tape then went on to include the audible grumble of Columbia exploding.

So, I have to ask (or do I?) if this is just another one of our illustrious government’s cover-ups? Did the San Francisco photographer capture the true culprit to Columbia’s destruction? Did coincidence play a mighty hand in showing us mere mortals that the heavens are filled with things that we are still unable to fathom, comprehend, or care to wholly admit?

After the shuttle’s demise, I remember there was speculation that the equipment on Columbia for the megalightning testing was exposed and attracted the lightning. This is probably not true, but what if it were? Could NASA have actually caused the demise of its own? Or, more horrifically, could the astronauts themselves have not put the equipment away properly? I’m leaning toward NASA, that seems to have “dumbed down” after Apollo. American history of manned space flight speaks for itself.

So, in a horrid twist of irony, the crew of the shuttle Columbia was testing for megalightning--and I would say they found it.

If you haven’t yet, and have the opportunity to do so, watch "Megalightning" (maybe through youtube) and make your own opinions. Let me know what you think.

Article Copyright© Tammy A. Branom - reproduced with permission.

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