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Last updateFri, 16 Feb 2018 7pm

Solving the enigmas of ageing technology

This coming Monday, August 11, if you find yourself outside in the evening and if the night sky is clear, look overhead to see if you notice the International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3) spacecraft passing by the earth. 

This mission was launched by NASA in 1978 and retargeted in 1983 to study comets.  Since then, it has been in a heliocentric orbit slowly catching up with the earth and this week is back in our neighborhood.  As a testament to how well machines can be built if you have millions and millions of dollars to spend, the ISEE-3 was believed to be in good working condition because most of its scientific instruments were operational the last time it was contacted.

Sadly, the Goddard Space Flight Center determined that it would be unable to communicate with this spacecraft today.  The ISEE-3 might still be functional, but here on Earth the old-fashioned radio transmission hardware of the Deep Space Network was scrapped in 1999.  New radio transmitters could have been built but NASA decided that spending a lot of money to talk to a 31-year-old spacecraft just for old times sake was not worth the cost.

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{access !public}It is easy for me to relate to this story of ancient technology, because it happens to me every so often that one of my clients will bring out a really old piece of software or hardware asking if it still works.  This question can arise when people discover they have some personal data they might like to access and which is stored on some old-style medium such as 5¼ floppy disks or a Zip disk, Digital Optical Tape, SyQuest drive, Bernoulli Box or some other now-disused computer data storage system.

In many cases the magnetic medium is still readable, though the plastics used in floppy disks and tapes are subject to age-induced deterioration.  Hard drives fare much better in retaining their data because their metal or ceramic disks are stable materials and are sealed in a sterile environment.  The biggest problem is locating the necessary hardware to read some of these old hard disks.

Not too long ago a client, who failed to follow good backup practices and lost all stored data to a hard disk crash, asked if a dead computer that had been in the attic for two decades might still have files on it.  The answer is probably “yes,” but the hard disk was an MFM drive, a technology that has not been used since the 1980s, and no computer today can connect to this hard drive.  Even looking through the relics donated to a local charity failed to turn up a computer old enough to read that ancient hard drive.  The client decided the lost files were not valuable enough to warrant the high cost of professional data recovery service.

Some people concerned with the archival preservation of electronic media, including the committee responsible for choosing what should be put into a time capsule, have asked what is the best electronic data storage medium to use.  Today CD-ROM disks are already disappearing from computers and we have to wonder if USB flash drives will be next.  The bottom line is that we do not know what form electronic data storage might take in the future. 

Those individuals in charge of deciding what to place in the time capsule about to be sealed in the cornerstone of a new building decided the answer was to print everything on acid-free paper because human beings have been reading the printed word since we learned how to write on clay tablet and papyrus.

The final word on ISEE-3 is that while NASA was no longer interested in investing resources in communicating with this old spacecraft, permission was apparently given to a non-government group of techno-archeologists to try.  As of this writing, members of the “ISEE-3 Reboot Project” announced they contacted the craft but its propulsion system had failed.  The group expressed disappointment but said they will continue to “focus on the absurd things that are possible.”

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant with more than 20 years IT experience and a Texan with a lifetime love for Mexico.  The opinions expressed are his own.  He may be contacted through his web site at SMAguru.com.{/access}


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