By Brian Fonseca
May 7, 2008
Researchers who extracted data from a hard drive onboard the ill-fated
space shuttle Columbia say the device was so thoroughly damaged in the
shuttle's fiery crash that it just looked like a cracked "hunk of metal"
when it appeared at their door six months later.
Data recovery specialists at Kroll Ontrack Inc. painstakingly retrieved
99% of the information stored on the charred 400MB Seagate hard drive's
2.5-in. platters over a two day period after the device was discovered
six months after the 2003 shuttle crash. The device was found in a dried
up lake bed along the shuttle's debris area.
The successful retrieval of the data was disclosed in the April, 2008,
issue of the Physical Review E journal, which published data from tests
performed by the shuttle astronauts on the critical viscosity of xenon
gas, according to published reports. The results of the tests were
stored on the disk and retrieved by Kroll.
The Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere on
Feb. 1, 2003, killing all seven crew members and scattering debris
across Texas and Louisiana. Investigators determined that a piece of
foam that became dislodged after launch damaged the ship's thermal
protection system, leading to an uncontrolled buildup of heat, which
destroyed the spacecraft.
At the time of the accident, the shuttle was returning from a 16-day
mission to conduct a variety of atmospheric scientific experiments. One
of those tests was an experiment for the National Institute of Standards
and Technology to determine how xenon gas flows in a zero gravity
environment. Information about that test was discovered intact on the
damaged drive, said Jon Edwards, a senior clean room engineer at Kroll.
Edwards said the circuit board on the bottom of the drive was "burned
almost beyond recognition" and that all of its components had fallen
off. Every piece of plastic on the model ST9385AG hard drive melted, he
noted, and all the electronic chips inside had burned and come loose.
Edwards said the Seagate hard drive -- which was about eight years old
in 2003 -- featured much greater fault tolerance and durability than
current hard drives of similar capacity.
Two other hard drives aboard the Columbia were so severely damaged that
it was impossible to extract any usable data, he added.
Before recovery could begin, a great deal of dirt and other debris had
to be cleaned from the storage device. A rubber seal at the top of the
hard drive was completely burned off enabling dirt and charred elements
to enter the casing. Everything but the drive's platters were virtually
unusable, remarked Edwards
"The heads were bent and they were touching where they shouldn't have,
so we had to carefully cut and bend metal away from the platters to get
them out without causing more damage," said Edwards.
Once cleaned, the platters were placed into a spare drive and carefully
aligned with a new motor. Because the original circuit board was
destroyed, Kroll had to use trial and error to determine which firmware
was needed for the device.
Although damage to the drive worsened once the team got it up and
running, the data recovery specialists retrieved 99% of the drive's
DOS-formatted contents. "It was only a couple hundred megabytes of data,
which isn't much by today's terms, but the data [the drive] contained
was very valuable," noted Edwards.
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