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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- NASA officials have asked the Washington County sheriff's office to help recover a piece of shuttle debris that fell when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated Feb. 1.
Sheriff Kirk Smith was contacted by NASA Friday morning after the space agency's tracking equipment located a piece of debris about seven to eight miles outside Virgin, Utah, in the state's southwest corner, Smith said.
Washington County search-and-rescue teams were preparing for a grid search that would begin Friday night or Saturday morning just outside Zion National Park. The state department of public safety was lending its helicopter to the search, and a search-and-rescue team from Iron County immediately to the north may tapped as well, Smith said.
NASA pinpointed the debris to within a 10-square-mile area of a valley with some mild slopes and thick undergrowth, Smith said.
"It's not going to be an easy search, but we've certainly got rougher areas in our county," Smith said.
Washington County contains Zion National Park, famous for towering cliffs and deep canyons. Only a small portion of the search area NASA suggested was in the park, but the terrain was fairly mild, Smith said.
Smith does not know how large the piece of debris is, but he guesses that it would have to be a sizable piece for NASA radar to have tracked it to the ground.
"Maybe they're sophisticated enough that they would track a piece of tile all the way down," Smith said. But "to me, it would have to be a significant size to be able to track it all the way to the ground."
Smith expected searchers to find the debris within a few days. "We're looking for a needle in the haystack," Smith said. "We'll just go low and slow."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)