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Spectrum dusts off old tape drive to help Astronauts

Simon Sharwood

Perth Data recovery company Spectrum Data is working to restore a 1960's vintage  IBM IBM729 Mark 5 tape drive to life, in order to read tapes containing data from the Apollo 11, 12 and 14 moon missions.

The tapes came to light after Spectrum Data’s previous attempts to recover video of the first moon landing. NASA has lost the original tapes but sent tapes it considered possible sources of the video to Spectrum in the past.

Publicity surrounding those efforts saw Dr Brian O’Brien, a scientist who designed the original dust detector that was taken to the moon by Apollo 11 in 1969, reveal that he has preserved tapes of the data gathered on that mission. Dr O’Brien subsequently moved to Australia and brought the tapes with him.

Spectrum Data sourced the IBM729 Mark 5 from The Australian Computer Museum Society in NSW, which has loaned the device to Spectrum for this project.

Guy Holmes, Spectrum Data’s Chief Executive says the drive “… will require significant repairs and refurbishing to make it operational as many of the components were broken or have deteriorated.”

“Obtaining any “spare parts” required to get the drive functional could be a challenge,” he told SearchStorage ANZ. “In addition, once working, we will be interfacing the drive to a modern workstation as the original computer that this was once attached to won’t be available. We don’t envisage problems in this area, but it isn’t an easy task and can be quite a labour intensive exercise.”

Holmes says the tapes are in good condition, but believes that the age of the tapes mean their magnetic media has degraded, creating what the company calls “stiction” (short for sticky friction) that gums up the tape drive. Stiction can cause data loss and means old tapes cannot be run through drives at normal speeds.

Spectrum has over 170 tapes to analyse, yet each is thought to hold just a few megabytes of data.

The information on the tapes is prized by NASA to assist its planning of future manned missions to the moon. The instrument designed by Dr O'Brien recorded the qualities and behaviours of moon dust and is the only such study in existence.

“It is the only non-theoretical data in existence relating to moon dust and the effects it can have on equipment and astronauts,” Holmes said.

Spectrum Data hopes to have the tape drive operating early in 2009.