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Space Shuttle Columbia

Piece of shuttle left wing identified

Agency hoping fragment holds clue to loss of Columbia

By Richard Stenger

Investigators look at the window assembly in front of the mission pilot seating area. U.S. Navy Cmdr. William McCool, was the mission's pilot.
Investigators look at the window assembly in front of the mission pilot seating area. U.S. Navy Cmdr. William McCool, was the mission's pilot.

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(CNN) -- A possibly crucial fragment found by debris searchers came from the left wing of the space shuttle Columbia, a top NASA deputy announced Monday.

The orbiter broke apart February 1, minutes after experiencing problems with its left wing during a re-entry attempt.

Space agency investigators hope pieces of the wing can shed light on the disaster that killed seven astronauts.

"I think they have identified that they have at least one piece of the left wing," said Michael Kostelnik, deputy NASA administrator.

The wing section had been recovered days ago, but it was not immediately clear which side it came from. Like many of the 12,000 pieces of recovered shuttle debris, it was charred and mangled.

It remains unknown where the segment fit into the wing, but it included reinforced carbon-carbon material, which protects the leading edge of shuttle wings from the 3,000-degree Fahrenheit heat of atmospheric re-entry.

The left-wing piece was recovered near the end of the main debris trail, not the beginning, as some preliminary reports suggested.

"Contrary to earlier reports, it was found farther east of Fort Worth [Texas]. It was near Lufkin," Kostelnik said.

To help piece together the shuttle disaster puzzle, investigators plan to assemble the shuttle fragments beginning this week at NASA's shuttle base in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The debris could arrive as soon as Wednesday, NASA chief Sean O'Keefe said.

Besides pieces on the ground, investigators continue to study amateur and government video and photographs of the shuttle, both in orbit and during its final descent.

One blurry image from an Air Force tracking station in New Mexico, taken about a minute before the shuttle disintegrated, shows what some observers have interpreted as a jagged leading edge on the left wing.

NASA managers, who released the image Friday, dismissed a Jerusalem Post article suggesting that shuttle investigators had access to images with twice the resolution from the military installation, which uses an extremely powerful adaptive-optics telescope to track satellites.

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