Monday, 12 May, 2008 Technology

Data from Disk Drive Recovered After Shuttle Columbia's Accident


Jon Edwards is the man whose work is to recover extremely important information from the computers destroyed in floods and fires. He is the one to find precious data on a melted disk drive that was destroyed when it fell down from the sky during the collapse of shuttle Columbia back in 2003.

"When we got it, it was two hunks of metal stuck together. We couldn't even tell it was a hard drive. It was burned and the edges were melted. It looked pretty bad at first glance, but we always give it a shot," commented Edwards, who works as an engineer at Kroll Ontrack Inc., outside Minneapolis.

The drive that was used during the Columbia mission gathered information from a scientific experiment regarding the properties of liquid xenon. Most of the registered data was radioed to earth when Columbia was still on its mission. Jon Edwards managed to recover the rest. Researchers published the rest of the information on the experiment in the April issue of Physical Review E, a journal about science.

It is worth mentioning on February 1, 2003, shuttle Columbia fell into pieces when it re-entered into the atmosphere. Seven astronauts died in the crash. The crash happened because of a foam insulation that fell off an additional fuel tank. This caused the damage of the shuttle at launch. After the crash the drive was brought to Texas along with other pieces from the crash. Six months after the tragedy, a NASA contractor showed the smashed disk drive to Kroll Ontrack, a company that specializes in information recovery. There was little chance of recovering the data from the disk, as, besides the fact that metal and plastic elements where completely burned, the seal found on the side that protects from dirt and dust melted. Such damage may cause the penetration of the particles that can scratch small materials stored inside the disk, thus making it impossible to preserve data in endless 0s or 1s.

Fortunately no damage was spotted on the spinning platters that in fact register information. Although the platters were scratched, the 340-megabyte disk was damaged where there was no data. It was half full. The engineer mentioned that the computer has been running on DOS, which in fact does not distribute information all over drives in contrast to other approaches.

When Jon Edwards cleaned the platters using a chemical solution, he applied them in a new disk drive. During a period of two days, the process was able to recapture 99 percent of data. The other two disk drives could not be saved as they lost their ability to keep a magnetic charge during shuttle's entrance into the atmosphere.

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