KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — An unmanned satellite-carrying rocket launched last month may have sustained as many as nine lightning strikes before it broke apart over the Atlantic Ocean, a NASA spokesman said Thursday.
The disclosure came as searchers recovered from the sea the flight computer from the doomed rocket. Officials said it appeared to be in good shape and could provide vital information on what went wrong.
Officials reported earlier there was evidence of at least one lightning hit on the rocket's nose cone and that lightning was the leading suspect as the cause of the accident.
Displays Chunks of Rocket
"Since then as many as eight additional locations on the nose fairing have been found which are consistent with damage normally caused by lightning," spokesman Hugh Harris said Thursday as he showed reporters recovered chunks of the shattered Atlas-Centaur rocket spread out on the floor of a hangar.
The $78-million rocket, carrying a $83-million military communications satellite, was launched in a heavy rainstorm on March 26 and began breaking apart 52 seconds after liftoff.
Harris also said weather gauges near the launching pad showed conditions were right for dangerous lightning at the time of liftoff. But he said data from these devices is used only for manned space shuttle launches. He said in the future these readings might be used for unmanned rockets.
He said a shuttle would not be launched if electrical charges measured by the devices registered as low as minus 1,000 volts per meter. Readings at the time of the Atlas-Centaur launching were as low as minus 7,360 volts per meter.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration photographs show a bolt of lightning streaking from the area of the rocket, hidden in clouds, to the ground about the time the rocket veered off course and began to break apart.
Cites Flawed Computer
John R. Busse, head of a board investigating the accident, reported earlier that there were electrical failures in both the Atlas and Centaur rocket stages at about the time of the lightning strike. He said a flight computer inexplicably ordered the Atlas engine nozzles to swivel sharply, sending the rocket out of control.
The flight computer, in a one-foot-square metal container, was recovered from the Atlantic just off Cape Canaveral later Thursday, and Busse reported it appeared to be intact and sealed. It will be cleaned and shipped to its manufacturer, Teledyne, in Northridge, Calif., for examination.