In what could be the biggest break so far in NASA's probe into the fatal disintegration of the shuttle Columbia, NASA dispatched recovery teams yesterday to California and Arizona to examine what might be thermal tiles or a wing fragment from the doomed spacecraft.
"If it is wing material, it would be very important to the investigation," said Michael Kostelnik, a NASA deputy associate administrator for space flight.
A piece of Columbia's wing, or a numbered tile, found that far west would tell investigators precisely which portion of the shuttle failed first as it raced eastward across the country Saturday morning toward a planned Florida landing.
Kostelnik said in Washington yesterday that e-mail messages received by NASA provided descriptions of debris found in California and Arizona. "It's not clear what the material is," he said. But the information was promising enough to warrant inspection by recovery teams.
The shuttle broke up 39 miles above Texas, and debris fell across East Texas and northwestern Louisiana.
Investigators are considering whether fuel tank insulation that struck Columbia's left wing during liftoff might have damaged thermal tiles. That could have left the wing's aluminum structure vulnerable to melting in the heat of re-entry.
NASA engineers saw the insulation strike the wing on launch films and spent 12 days studying its importance. They concluded there would be no significant risk to the shuttle or the crew during re-entry. Kostelnik said yesterday that he believed the Columbia astronauts were informed of the likely damage and of the engineers' conclusions.
Searchers were scattered across the debris field yesterday, gathering up thousands of fragments of the shattered spacecraft. "We've had a lot of progress," Kostelnik said.
He reported that at least one of the shuttle's three main engines had been found in northwestern Louisiana.
The remains of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon have been found and will be brought to Israel for burial in the coming days, the Israeli army said today in Jerusalem.
NASA officials informed representatives of the Israeli army that Ramon's body had been identified, the army said in a statement.
Ramon's body was one of four sets of remains that have been positively identified, Israel Radio reported. The DNA and jawbone of Ramon's body were checked to ensure that they were indeed his, the radio said.
Israel had sent four ultra-Orthodox specialists to help search for the remains of the astronauts, which were scattered near the Texas-Louisiana state line. According to Jewish law, all parts of a Jewish person must be buried. If the body is not found, a funeral is not possible
Searchers were guided in part by radar tracking data showing where the largest fragments of the shuttle fell.
Underscoring the difficulty of sorting out ordinary debris from shuttle wreckage, Arizona officials said one report from Yuma turned out to be burned toast.
NASA also was gathering and studying many photographs and videotapes taken along the shuttle's path, which was publicized in advance.
Of particular interest, Kostelnik said, is a videotape of the shuttle's final moments made from an Air Force Apache helicopter in the air over Texas.
Two Americans, meanwhile, remain in space - aboard the International Space Station with a Russian cosmonaut. NASA reported that the Russian Progress supply vehicle launched Sunday from Kazakstan docked successfully yesterday with the station.
The unmanned craft carried food, water and other supplies for the crew in a flight planned before the shuttle accident.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.