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NASA Confirms Discovery of Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster Ruins in Ocean

A History Channel documentary crew found a large section of tiles from the shuttle buried under sand.

The hands of two divers are visible along with a fish as they inspect rectangular tiles from the space shuttle Challenger underwater.
A TV documentary crew discovered a large tiled section of Challenger off the coast of Florida.
History Channel video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

On Jan. 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger experienced a malfunction shortly after liftoff that cost the lives of the seven crew members on board. Now, a piece of the doomed spacecraft has been found on the ocean floor off the coast of Florida. 

A documentary crew working on a television show for the History Channel discovered the underwater artifact while looking for airplane wreckage. In a statement on Thursday, NASA said it had reviewed the footage and confirmed the section came from Challenger. The loss of Challenger, and later Columbia in 2003, spurred NASA to improve its safety efforts.

History Channel shared a preview on Thursday of the show that will delve into the artifact's discovery. It will air as part of the series The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters, though the piece of Challenger was not found in the Bermuda Triangle, a region of ocean with an urban-legend-level reputation for ship and aircraft disappearances.

The footage shows divers clearing sand away from the artifact as fish swim over it. The segment measured in at about 20 feet (6 meters) long and is made up of a series of 8-inch (20 centimeter) tiles. "I think we need to talk to NASA," one of the divers says at the end of the clip. The Bermuda Triangle: Into Cursed Waters will air on History Channel on Tuesday, Nov. 22. 

NASA didn't specify which part of the shuttle the section came from, but the thermal tiles appear to be a match for the spacecraft's belly. The space agency has collected debris from the disaster over the years and part of the shuttle's left wing washed up on shore in Florida in 1996.

The Challenger disaster is one of those touchstone moments in collective memory for people who were alive at the time. Where were you when it happened? "This discovery gives us an opportunity to pause once again, to uplift the legacies of the seven pioneers we lost, and to reflect on how this tragedy changed us," NASA administrator Bill Nelson said.

Space shuttle artifacts are the property of the US government. NASA "currently is considering what additional actions it may take regarding the artifact that will properly honor the legacy of Challenger's fallen astronauts and the families who loved them."