An astronomer who regularly photographs space shuttles when they pass over the San Francisco Bay area has captured five “strange and provocative images” of Columbia as it was re-entering the atmosphere.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports the images “appear to be bright electrical phenomena flashing around the track of the shuttle’s passage.”

“They clearly record an electrical discharge like a lightning bolt flashing past, and I was snapping the pictures almost exactly … when the Columbia may have begun breaking up during re-entry,” the photographer, who asked not to be identified, told the Chronicle.

The photos were snapped with a Nikon camera using a tripod.

Though the space scientist is not making the pictures public immediately, he invited the newspaper to view the images on his home computer this weekend.

David Perlman, science editor for the Chronicle, calls the photos “indeed puzzling.”

“They show a bright scraggly flash of orange light, tinged with pale purple, and shaped somewhat like a deformed L,” Perlman writes. “The flash appears to cross the Columbia’s dim [white trail formed in the wake of the craft], and at that precise point, the [white trail] abruptly brightens and appears thicker and somewhat twisted as if it were wobbling.”

“I couldn’t see the discharge with my own eyes, but it showed up clear and bright on the film when I developed it,” the photographer said. “But I’m not going to speculate about what it might be.”

Meanwhile, an Australian astronomer working in California says he saw what could be tiles falling off the orbiter as it flew over the Golden State.

“After the first few flashes I thought to myself that I knew the shuttle lost tiles as it re-entered and quite possibly that was what was going on,” Anthony Beasley told ABC News.

Beasley was north of Los Angeles when he made his report, indicating the shuttle possibly began to disintegrate above California.

If Beasley is correct, it indicates the shuttle began to disintegrate on the West Coast above California.

The Australian reported how the astronomer witnessed “a couple of flashes” and “things clearly trailing” Columbia.

“I think that after the particularly bright event I started to wonder whether or not things were happening how they should,” Beasley said.

Space experts said tiles falling off the shuttle would be too small to be detected by NASA radar.

“It leads in the direction that tile loss or some type of structural loss like that was likely to be a cause,” former shuttle astronaut Norm Thagard told ABC. “But it still doesn’t rule out other possibilities.”

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