HEMPHILL, Texas – NASA sent a team to California to inspect material that may be part of space shuttle Columbia's wing, while searchers scouring an eastern Texas pond discovered what is believed to be a wing fragment.
Possible debris found far west of Texas, where Columbia was seen breaking up, could shed light on the earliest stages of the disaster that left the shuttle's seven astronauts dead, officials said.
Michael Kostelnik, a NASA spaceflight office deputy, cautioned that the space agency has not determined whether the material found in California is from Columbia's wing -- or even from the shuttle at all.
"Debris early in the flight path would be critical because that material would obviously be near the start of the events" that unfolded during the shuttle's west-to-east trip across the country, Kostelnik said.
Shuttle fragments and body parts continued to turn up in Texas and Louisiana on Tuesday. And after days of warning people to stay away from debris, law enforcement officials said they may start taking some action against looters.
The search for debris up to now has been concentrated from central Texas into central Louisiana. A NASA radar map indicates that is the heaviest debris field.
On Tuesday, a 6- to 7-foot section of what authorities believe to be a shuttle wing fragment was recovered from a pond in Texas, Nacogdoches County Sheriff Thomas Kerss said.
More than 12,000 recovered remnants, many nickel-sized, have created a growing mosaic of evidence that could take months or years to pick through.
At Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, one of two collection points for body parts and debris, NASA spokesman Steve Nesbitt said much more remains to be discovered.
"I'm sure the vast majority of it is out in the woods," he said. "The pace will quicken up in the next few days."
The discovery on Monday of one of the biggest and most recognizable pieces of Columbia -- the nose cone -- underscored how hard it will be to find the thousands of much-smaller bits of debris. The shuttle part -- about 4 feet across -- was discovered drilled into the ground in a deep thicket near Hemphill by two men who were scouring their land for debris.
Military officials were deciding whether to use a helicopter to remove the front of the 500-pound nose cone, said Marcus Beard, district ranger for Sabine National Forest.
Kostelnik said pieces of the shuttle, including one of the spacecraft's engines, fell in Louisiana and are being recovered.
He acknowledged that NASA may never find all the debris.
"We will have gotten all the big pieces" when the search ends, he said. "We will get everything we can find, and I think we will get a fair percentage of it."
In Vernon Parish, La., a woman out walking found a small, ragged piece of fabric with a Star of David, Sheriff Sam Craft said. The symbol, in a circle between blue and silver bars, is the flag of the Israeli Air Force and is presumably from the suit of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon.
Other residents found papers that included a scrap with shuttle pilot William McCool's name and another scrap with mission number STS107.
Highlighting the difficulty of sorting out ordinary debris from shuttle wreckage, Arizona officials said one report from Yuma turned out to be burned toast. And Kostelnik said some suspected shuttle debris in Fort Worth, Texas, had nothing to do with the spacecraft.
"It's easy to speculate. It's easy to be confused. There are a lot of things laying around the country," Kostelnik said.