• A piece of the spaceship that exploded after launch in 1986 was found off the coast of Florida

A section of the space shuttle Challenger has been found off the coast of Florida, NASA confirmed on Thursday. It is the first new piece of the ill-fated spacecraft to be found since 1996, and is believed to be the largest one so far. The Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff in January 1986, killing everyone on board.

A TV crew working on a History Channel documentary about the “Bermuda Triangle” encountered the debris on the seafloor near Cape Canaveral in March, NASA revealed. The footage was shown to Michael Ciannilli, a manager who was able to identify it.

“My heart skipped a beat, I must say, and it brought me right back to 1986 … and what we all went through as a nation,” Ciannilli told the AP.

The Challenger’s launch on January 28, 1986 was broadcast live across the US. Just 73 seconds after liftoff, the spacecraft exploded. A NASA probe later found that unexpectedly cold temperatures caused a problem with O-ring seals on the booster rocket.

About 107 metric tons of the shuttle’s debris has been recovered since then, including parts of the booster rockets and the external fuel tank. Two fragments of the left wing had washed ashore in 1996, the last pieces to be found until now. The newly discovered segment is at least 4.5 meters square in size, possibly more as it is partially buried in the sand. Ciannilli believes it is a section of the Challenger’s belly, because of the square thermal tiles on the surface.

A left side panel from the Challenger is on display at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex, alongside a piece of the sister shuttle Columbia, which broke apart on re-entry in 2003, also killing the entire crew. The rest of the debris is buried in a silo at Cape Canaveral. The US government legally owns the shuttle debris, and the newly-discovered piece will remain on the ocean floor until NASA can figure out what to do with it.

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