As the Cassini space probe nears Saturn and its moons, researchers will be flooded with fresh data. "It's possible we can get clues as to how Earth was born," says Bob Mitchell, NASA's program manager for Cassini.
This data would fit on 1,000 of the biggest computer hard drives, and while the pretty pictures will be shown on television and posted on NASA's website along with the appropriate hyperbole, the bulk of the information will be placed with the billions and billions of bits of data that arrive daily -- hourly -- in the world's scientific precincts. Some will be analyzed closely, at a budgeted cost of $550 million.
But most will not.
That's because astronomers are facing a data glut. All these telescopes and space probes -- built and launched at a cost of tens of billions of dollars -- are returning more information than anyone has the time or the resources to manage. "Once Cassini and Mars Global Surveyor start returning data, I don't even want to think about what's going to happen," Susan McMahon, manager of the planetary-data service at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Astronomy magazine in a June article about the problem.
So clues of how the Earth was born may rush past, only to be buried in archives like so much else has been since the dawn of the space age 40 years ago. Space missions are ended long before all the data is looked at; data collected years ago sit in obsolete storage media like seven-track magnetic tape for which players are all but extinct.
The magazine takes as an example the National Space Science Data Center at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, which since the mid 1960s has stored space data from about 1,000 experiments that flew on some 400 missions, all stored on aging magnetic computer tape. "We've got data from computers that are no longer around," laments center director Joseph King.
The data glut doesn't surprise Bruce Gagnon, Florida coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. "This is an indication that what they're oriented toward is building the vehicle -- its enormous profitability -- and all that stuff about looking for life in the cosmos ... it's a lot of hype," he says.