NASA looks to ice, shuttle parts for clues

SPACE CENTER, Houston

Investigators are trying to identify an object spotted near Columbia shortly after it reached orbit as they try to determine what caused the shuttle to break apart.

Retired Adm. Harold Gehman Jr., who is leading an independent board investigating the disaster, told reporters yesterday that the tracking data from the U.S. Space Command Center in Nebraska could potentially be water that is routinely dumped from the shuttle, which then turned to ice.

“It could well have been an on-orbit piece associated with the shuttle which was supposed to have been there,” Gehman said. He stressed that the report still needs to be analyzed.

Meanwhile, investigators continued to study a 2-foot section of Columbia’s wing and a 300-pound object that appears to be a door panel from one of the shuttle’s wheel wells found in Texas.

The wing includes the carbon-covered edge designed to protect Columbia’s insulating tiles during re-entry and could provide hard evidence of what went wrong, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said Saturday.

Gehman would not comment yesterday on whether the wing piece was from the shuttle’s left side, which could prove significant because Columbia’s troubles began in the left wing.

Sharon offers limited truce to Palestinians

JERUSALEM

Israel has offered the Palestinians a gradual cease-fire, a senior government official said yesterday, while suggesting that efforts to remove Yasser Arafat as Palestinian leader will intensify after the U.S.-Iraq conflict is resolved.

Also yesterday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was awarded the task of forming a coalition, a formality that starts the clock ticking.

Sharon has six weeks to form a government and – if the moderate Labor Party doesn’t budge on its refusal to join with Sharon’s Likud – the re-elected prime minister may have to rely on extreme right-wing and religious parties for a majority. Such a coalition would make concessions to the Palestinians nearly impossible.

Sharon offered the limited truce in secret talks last week with senior Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qureia. There was speculation that the meeting – the prime minister’s first with a Palestinian negotiator in about a year – was aimed at persuading Labor to join his coalition.

Labor has said it would not enter a Sharon-led government unless he agreed to withdraw from the Gaza Strip immediately and resume peace talks.

N. Korea nuclear concerns develop

WASHINGTON

The official Bush administration view of North Korea’s nuclear breakout is that, while troubling, it does not amount to a crisis. Yet that is exactly the word that comes to mind when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld talks about its dangers.

To Rumsfeld, it’s not simply a matter of North Korea becoming a nuclear weapons state. The CIA estimates that the communist-ruled country has had one or two nuclear weapons for a decade.

In his view the bigger danger is that, by cranking up a nuclear weapons production complex that had been idled under U.N. seal since 1994, a cash-starved North Korea could produce enough nuclear materials to sell to terrorist states or terror networks who might make America a target.

“It’s pretty clear that if they restart the reprocessing plant, they could have nuclear materials sufficient to make an additional six or eight weapons,” Rumsfeld said.

France, Germany: disarm Iraq with force

MUNICH, Germany

France and Germany intend to present a proposal to the U.N. Security Council next week to send U.N. soldiers to disarm Iraq, the German defense minister said yesterday.

The plan, according to a German newsmagazine, involves reconnaissance missions, the deployment of thousands of U.N. peacekeepers and tripling the number of U.N. weapons inspectors.

In Paris, the French government yesterday denied the existence of a “secret plan” with Germany, saying France had previously proposed increasing the number of arms inspectors. That denial – plus Defense Minister Peter Struck’s inability to offer concrete details of the reported plan – created an appearance of disarray in the Franco-German alliance against Washington’s hard-line stance on Iraq.

British, U.S. military dispatched to Kuwait

CAMP VIRGINIA, Kuwait

The key launch pad for a future war on Iraq bustles with tens of thousands of U.S. and British soldiers. Military convoys clog highways, and the entire northern half of Kuwait is sealed off as a military operations zone.

“Every day this thing grows by leaps and bounds,” Lt. Col. Jeffrey Helmick said.

“We’re bursting at the seams,” said Helmick, commander of the U.S. Army’s 6th Transportation Battalion, which helps truck tons of supplies from ports of entry to desert camps near the Iraqi border.

Officials will say little about the total number of U.S. troops being dispatched to Kuwait before a possible war. Washington says war is likely to begin soon because Iraq has failed to rid Iraq of all biological, chemical and nuclear weapons – weapons Iraq denies it has.

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