That was astronaut Tammy Jernigan’s stunned reaction last night when she viewed a photo of what appears to be space shuttle Columbia getting zapped by a purplish electrical bolt shortly before it disintegrated Saturday morning.

Former astronaut Tammy Jernigan

“It certainly appears very anomalous,” Jernigan told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We sure will be very interested in taking a very hard look at this.”

The photo was one of five captured by an amateur astronomer in San Francisco who routinely snaps pictures of shuttles when they pass over the Bay area.

The pictures were taken just seven minutes before Columbia’s fatal demise.

The Chronicle reports that top investigators of the disaster are now analyzing the startling photograph to try to solve the mystery.

The photographer continues to request his name be withheld, adding he would not release the image publicly until NASA has a chance to study it.

“[The photos] 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 originally told the paper Saturday night.

Late yesterday, the space agency sent Jernigan – a former shuttle flyer and now manager at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories – to the astronomer’s home to view the image, and have the Nikon camera brought to Houston today.

It was slated to be flown to the Johnson Space Center by a NASA T-38 jet this morning.

Jernigan reportedly asked the astronomer about the f-stop setting on his lens, and how long he kept the shutter open – apparently some four to six seconds. A tripod was used to steady the camera, and the shutter was triggered manually.

“In the critical shot,” states the Chronicle, “a glowing purple rope of light corkscrews down toward the plasma trail, appears to pass behind it, then cuts sharply toward it from below. As it merges with the plasma trail, the streak itself brightens for a distance, then fades.”

“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 previously said. “But I’m not going to speculate about what it might be.”

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

“They show a bright scraggly flash of orange light, tinged with pale purple, and shaped somewhat like a deformed L,” he wrote.

Space shuttle Columbia’s rollout to the launchpad (NASA photo)

Jernigan no longer works for NASA, though she’s a veteran of five shuttle missions in the 1990s. Ironically, on her final flight, the orbiter’s pilot was Rick Husband, who was at the helm at 9 a.m. EST Saturday when Columbia broke apart during re-entry into the atmosphere.

“He was one of the finest people I could ever hope to know,” Jernigan said.

According to her NASA biography, Jernigan graduated from Stanford in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in physics. She went on to earn master’s degrees in engineering science and astronomy from Stanford and UC-Berkeley respectively. She also holds a doctorate in space physics and astronomy from Rice University.

She’s spent over 63 days above the Earth, completing 1,000 orbits, and having walked in space for nearly eight hours during her final mission aboard shuttle Discovery in 1999.

Before flying on shuttles, she was a research scientist in the theoretical studies branch of NASA Ames Research Center, working on the study of bipolar outflows in the region of star formations, gamma ray bursters and shock-wave phenomena in the interstellar medium.

Regarding the Columbia disaster, the space agency is additionally investigating reports of possible remnants found in the West, including California and Arizona.

“Debris early in the flight path would be critical because that material would obviously be near the start of the events,” said Michael Kostelnik, a NASA spaceflight office deputy.

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