Data is necessary to solve problems

I recently read an article that got me thinking.  In a nutshell, part way through their 1970s/1980s mission out of the solar system, the Pioneer spacecraft started moving slower than they should.  No one could figure out why this was.  At first, it was surmised that engine fuel was leaking out.  This was ruled out as the slow speed continued for months.  No one could figure out why the spacecraft was moving slower than it should.  The problem was taken up again, 10 years after Pioneer 10 was lost to NASA.  The new theory is that the heat given off from the thermoelectric units “pushes” against the spacecraft, thereby retarding the forward motion.  This is all well and good, but in the article, there was one point that was amazing/confounding to me.

VG: Why has it taken so long to reach this point?
ST: Lack of proper data storage was a huge problem. In the 1970s and 1980s, mission data was recorded on magnetic tapes, and to study the Pioneer anomaly we needed the probe’s navigational data. But mission tapes were normally saved for only a few months and then thrown away, so you’re lucky if you can find what you need. The only data available from Pioneer 10 was from planetary flybys, which were kept to study gravity around planets. Then we had to figure out how to read it. You need a proper machine with the right software, and you need to “upconvert” the data to modern formats so it can be used in today’s computer modeling systems. That took years.

So the NASA threw away most of its data and stored what it did keep in almost-unusable formats?!?!  This is a problem for engineering at all levels:  hobby, inventor, consumer, industrial, etc.  Basically when a problem or a “Huh?” arise, the only way to find a solution is to have reliable data.  Sometimes that data is extremely hard to come by, if not impossible.  I know I’ve participated in some designs that I would be hard-pressed to recreate the design environment and/or the exact parameters of use.  It’s a shame that information has been lost, but it would be even more of a shame if I were forced to fix something because 10 years down the road something isn’t working right.  I am glad NASA figured out their problem – in doing so they have given me some food for thought.

Pioneer Family

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  1. […] back in 2005.   It turned out to be a bit more trouble than I anticipated.  In the past I have talked about the need for good record-keeping and how that gets harder  and harder to […]

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