Hard drive recovery FAIL

So a while ago, I realized I had too many digital pictures on my main laptop and bought a 500 GB external hard drive. I thought I got a good deal. However, for a number of reasons, that has turned out not to be the case. Reason #1 on the list is that the hard drive was working fine one day, and then the next, I noticed that my Picasa screen saver was drawing only from pictures on the laptop’s local hard drive. The external drive no longer appeared in My Computer.

I checked the device manager and it found the external USB disk drive, and said it was working properly, but when I clicked the “populate” button under the “volumes” tab, I got information that the drive was unreadable. Okay, I thought, let’s try some other stuff in case the partition table got messed up.

With a little help, I got a bootable copy of Linux onto a USB thumb drive and brought my computer up with some Linux drive-recovery tools. (A quick note: when I entered “sudo fdisk -l” into a terminal, my external drive showed up as /dev/sdc but I got an error about there not being a valid partition table and I couldn’t force-mount the drive. [Also, if there was a “science” command in Linux, it would be an example of a command that “sudo” actually makes less useful.])

I installed and ran Testdisk. When I came to the bit where I had to select which volume to scan, I saw that /dev/sdc was listed but the reported size of the drive was about half of its actual 500 GB capacity. I scanned it anyway, and Testdisk came up with a totally blank partition structure table. No entries at all: after the table column headings, there was only a few linebreaks and then the message, “Partition sector doesn’t have the endmark 0xAA55.” I Googled around a bit for Testdisk hints, and I haven’t been able to find anyone else who gets a completely blank partition table after a Testdisk analysis. That error message turns up plenty of times, but in the posts I found, there was always some partition or other to select and the message seemed to be irrelevant. A “quick scan” looked like it was going to take my computer on the order of 100-1000 hours to complete, so I declined that option. FAIL.

I also tried PhotoRec, an image-recovery program that came with Testdisk, because hey, I wanted to recover pictures. That found nothing on the drive. On the longest run I let it perform (overnight, and incomplete – again, it estimated on the order of 1000 hours to “achievement”) it told me that my 250 GB working hard drive was full and it had to stop. When I opened up the location where PhotoRec was supposed to store recovered files, there was nothing there. And my 250 GB internal drive had totally unchanged space usage. Go figure. FAIL again.

Finally, I ripped the drive out of its packaging and discovered that the standalone external unit just consisted of a Western Digital 500 GB Caviar drive and a little control board that fed its SATA data and power ports to a USB 2 and power adapter port. Thinking that maybe the fault was with that control board – since the USB port seemed pretty flimsy to me – I yanked the drive out and connected a SATA-to-USB adapter straight to the disk drive. Same results as before. FAIL.

I can only surmise that this drive was shipped with little tiny explosive charges on each of the cylinders, or perhaps on the drive head, and one of the pictures I saved onto the drive the day before it stopped working inadvertently contained the code sequence that self-destructed the entire disk. Unless anyone else has any ideas for me…

Europa Mission Concept Followup

My Ice Fracture Explorer concept for getting a probe down into Europa’s subsurface ocean – one of the likely places in our Solar System to find extraterrestrial life – was just one way to dig beneath the ice crust. Other concepts often involve melting through the ice crust. However, I thought, what if we can take advantage of the places where Europa’s geologic dynamics allow access to the ocean without tunneling through the ice?

I can think of two surface features on Europa that mark potential exposure of the ocean to space. One is the “chaos,” which may be formed when ocean-floor volcanoes or rising blobs of warm water melt through the ice crust all the way to space. However, we don’t yet have a good way to predict when chaos features would form – unless the impact theory of chaos formation, my personal favorite, is correct, and we can track a large meteoroid on its way to hit Europa. The second, the double-ridge features marking cracks in the ice crust, are potentially more predictable so it makes better sense to plan a mission around penetrating the crust through these fractures.

My IFE concept involved a disposable probe landing on a double-ridge, rolling to the center, and hanging over the crack as it opens up under Jupiter’s tides. The hanging probe could then drop a penetrator into the fracture, to punch through the thin layer of ice below and dive into the ocean water.

Hanging drop concept

A number of readers left me comments here and on io9 pointing out various challenges with this design. Getting the lander to hang, suspended, in the middle of the crack might stretch our space-tether technologies a little too far. Timing transmissions to an orbiter before the closing crack crushes the lander is a problem. Communications from the penetrator are also an issue: since those have to cross a water/space boundary, I wanted to just reel out a long data line from the hanging lander to the penetrator – but the length of this cable could be an issue  if the ice crust ends up being 100 km thick. And, since the probe would probably have to be powered by an RTG, when the fracture closes and squishes the probe, we’d be dropping radioactive gunk on the Europan natives. While I don’t think any of the stages of the IFE concept stretch our technologies much more than, say, the Mars Science Lab’s Sky Crane, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to make things easier on ourselves!

One such idea might be to drop the miniature penetrators directly from orbit. There wouldn’t be any suspended platforms, data cables, or rolling around on an unpredictable surface. There also wouldn’t be as much of a challenge in lining up the orbiter for receiving data, since the penetrator came from the orbiter in the first place. However, determining which ice fractures are opening and closing, and timing the drop from orbit to coincide with those events, might be tricky. Landing on the surface first adds an additional safe-hold point to the mission: controllers can wait to establish good telemetry from the lander after it’s on the surface and before ordering it to commence penetrator deployments.

Another suggestion might be to keep the lander on one side of the double-ridge interior. It could shoot a cable across to the other side, and reel the penetrators out to the middle before dropping them:

Penetrator drop concept

This concept buys the IFE a number of things: first, it can drop more than one penetrator. My original concept called for several IFE’s to be dropped in tandem to several ice fractures to increase the chance of success. However, if each IFE can deploy more than one probe into the ocean, then the mission managers can get several chances to successfully drop the mini-probes as the crack opens and closes and opens again. Second, the lander won’t be crushed, meaning that we won’t have to worry about radioactive contamination of the ocean (as long as the penetrators run on batteries) and we’ll get the chance to have the landers keep performing science operations after all the penetrators are expended. Third, the lander can buffer data from the penetrators and uplink the information to an orbiter at leisure – no rushing to time the drop for an orbiter pass!

One thing scientists don’t really know yet about Europa is how wide these cracks open up. The tether-based ideas I’ve outlined work as long as the crack is big enough to admit the penetrators – but they have the advantage of working if the fractures end up being many meters wide. However, that might not be an advantage the spacecraft needs if the cracks are very narrow. In that case, why not just have the lander come down with footpads on either side of the fracture?

Straddler concept

As the crack opens and closes, damped mechanical joints in the legs could take up the motion and keep the lander centered over the crack. This lander would also be able to buffer data, survive for many tidal cycles, and be able to drop as many penetrators as it has packed into its body.

I think the biggest issue with my designs is that data line: the images and biochemical experiment results from the penetrator have to get transmitted to the lander somehow. (From there, they can get to orbit and then to Earth.) Direct transmission via radio or optical signal could be very difficult from beneath the alien waves, and speed is a factor, so I opted for a hardline. But how long does the cable need to be? At least tens of meters. Probably around ten of kilometers. But maybe as long as 100 kilometers, which could be prohibitively long! One possible solution might be to drop a two-segment penetrator into the crack: the upper segment would have floats – probably some sort of inflated bags – and a radio transmitter. The lower segment would contain the ice-shattering hard shell and all the science instruments. The two halves of each probe would be connected by an unreeling data cable. So, the probe would drop from the lander, smash through the ice, and then split into halves – with one half floating on (and them freezing on to) the ocean surface while the other half continues its plunge into the depths. The probe would collect its data, then zap that data up the cable to the surface unit. From there, the data would travel via radio to the lander, which would relay it to the orbiter and then the Deep Space Network.

Certainly, any concept for a Europa mission strains our ingenuity. But that is one reason why it’s so fun!

NASA went where I’ve gone!

This year’s NASA Desert RATS exercise is taking place near Flagstaff, AZ. Here’s the view from inside one of the rovers after a traverse:

RATS is a program in which NASA engineers, scientists, and astronauts take prototype equipment into remote locations on Earth and practice the procedures and operations that they would use if they were actually on another planet. It’s an opportunity for the engineers to see what their creations are capable of, scientists to see how much work astronauts can get done and teach them basic skills like field geology, and the astronauts to get some experience using the equipment so they can provide feedback.

Not only is RATS showing off the best capabilities of the most successful part of the Constellation Program – the Lunar Electric Rover Concept, or LERC – but they have gone to an especially cool site, a well-preserved but little-known cinder cone volcano known as SP Mountain! As that video played, I kept thinking to myself: “that looks familiar…” Here’s my view of SP and the lava flow coming out of the base of the mountain:

SP Cone
SP flow

When I was there, with a class of planetary geology grad students led by Cornell Mars scientist Jim Bell, I couldn’t help but picture the rugged a’a terrain of SP flow with astronauts picking their way along. What a tremendous place to practice exploration operations!

Grad students exploring the flow

Workshopping the Reject


Since last February, I have been trying to get my sci-fi short story, “Conference,” published. So far, the score is 0 for 4.

Asimov’s Science Fiction sent me a form-letter rejection.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction sent me a personalized letter. The editor wrote that “this tale didn’t quite work for me, I’m afraid,” and thanked me for sending it along. I appreciated the thought, at least.

Analog Science Fiction and Fact sent me a two-page form letter containing, basically, their submission guidelines. The editor scrawled a note at the bottom in blue pen, though: “PS: Present-tense narration tends to call excessive attention to itself and is generally best avoided unless a particular story requires it.”

I just heard back from Strange Horizons. They sent a short note that said thanks, but they decided not to publish the story.

I happen to really like this story, and I’d love to see it published. It takes place in the Cathedral Galaxy, a universe I hope to expand with many more stories, but it grew out of my experiences as a grad student. The mundane bits of researcher life. Giving a presentation to a research community. Camaraderie among grad students. Taking advantage of conferences to go sightseeing – and grinning at the crowds of other scientists doing the same. Research advisors, good and bad; on-the-ball and absent-minded. Having different impressions of a scientist from reading their papers and from actually meeting them. Reacting to the presence of the “big names” in a particular field. Even finding love within a technical community – though it certainly didn’t happen to me the way it happened to Ceren Aydomi.

So, readers, since I like this story so much, I’d like to workshop it a little. If you can, take a look. Is it too long? (It’s almost 10,000 words, which is on the big side for a short, but when I read it, it doesn’t feel too bad to me.) Does the present-tense narration bother you? Is the action too slow or too fast in places? Are the characters strong enough, and do they interact naturally enough? If you’ve been to a research conference before, how does this feel as a depiction?

I’m all ears!

Ithaca Brew Fest 2010

Yesterday was the fourth annual Ithaca Brew Fest. This is an amazing event in which guests get to taste enormous amounts of beer from nearly 50 breweries ranging from New York State micros to national brands. It’s a fantastic way to try lots of different brews; for a novice at the beer snobbery game like myself, it’s also a great way to compare many qualities of beer so I can better put my finger on what I like and what I don’t, or what would be good with various foods, or moods, or what have you. Especially fun this year was that my best friend from college joined me – he’s a bit more experienced with the nomenclature for beers and has tried some homebrewing, but he’s never been to the Ithaca area or sampled our local stuff. So, it was fun to compare notes. (Besides having a great little mini-Eph-physics reunion!)

As I mentioned above, I’m an amateur at the beer review process; but at least this is my 3rd Brew Fest, I like trying things, and I can make a stab at putting some of my thoughts into words. Here are some of the highlights that stand out in my mind after Brew Fest 2010:

Ithaca Beer Co.: CascaZilla and Cold Front

We are fortunate to have a really good brewery here in town, and I’ve just got to bring them up first. My friend was especially a fan of CascaZilla, IBC’s red ale. It’s a nicely balanced beer, between hoppiness and maltiness. At my insistence, our first tasting of the day was the Ithaca Beer Co.’s Cold Front, a Belgian-style amber ale. I first tried Cold Front at last year’s Brew Fest and it rapidly became my favorite beer of the fall and winter. It’s got a complex combination of several smoky flavors and gives me a very nice warm-and-fuzzy-inside feeling. Goes wonderfully with pizza from The Nines in Collegetown, or a Guinness burger at the Ithaca Ale House!

Weihenstephan: Korbinian

Weihenstaphen is from Freising, Germany and has been in business since 1040 C.E., so we kind of figured that they probably knew what they were doing! Korbinian is a doppelbock – which is, I think, my favorite kind of beer. Korbinian was particularly caramely and chocolately, with a strong, delicious smell to it. It was a very heavy beer – not really bready, but still not the kind of thing you can just drink; you have to take it in sips. We tried to come back for seconds on this one!

Wagner Valley Brewing Co.: Sled Dog Doppelbock

We continued a round of dark beer tastings with another doppelbock, the Sled Dock from Wagner (a NY local). This doppelbock was second only to the Korbinian, I thought: it also had rich caramel flavors, though it felt a bit lighter, making it easier to drink in larger sips.

Anchor Brewing: Anchor Porter

I do like a good porter, and this one hit the spot: a nice, rich, dark porter; a bit more bitter than all the doppelbocks we tried.

Here we are with the Anchor Steam Porter: it had the perfect color for a Brew Fest photo!

Bellwether Hard Cider: Liberty Spy and No. 4

Bellwether overcomes the disadvantage of its owner’s amHerst College heritage to produce some very tasty hard ciders, and is the establishment that introduced me to fine hard cider on par with all the craft breweries and many upstate NY wineries. I prefer their Original and Liberty Spy hard ciders to the fancier things like Cherry Street and Black Magic, which get augmented with cherries or black currants. Liberty Spy has clear apple flavors coming through; it’s fruity without being too sweet. New to me this year was No. 4, which had more sour-apple notes. Tasty without the flavors being overpowering!

Brewery Ommegang: Abbey Ale and Kup O Kyndnes

Ommegang’s Abbey Ale is brewed in the Trappist style; it’s got a lot of strong brown-ale flavors without being as chocolate- or caramel-dominated as the doppelbocks. Ommegang is a regular and Abbey Ale was a Brew Fest favorite among most of the people I talked to; it topped my friend’s list enough that he said he’s going to make a point to look for it back where he lives in the Boston area. That brew is something to be careful of, though: it’s delicious, but over 8% ABV! I tried their Belgian-style Scotch ale, Kup O Kyndnes, for the first time this year, which successfully combined a number of flavors from other beer styles.

Flying Dog Brewery: Raging Bitch

Whoo! This was the most punch-in-the-faceiest hoppy beer I have ever had. If you like hops, you should try it. It was definitely not my favorite, but I mention it because some people like their hops.

Roosterfish Brewing: Hop Warrior

Roosterfish’s imperial IPA is an extremely hoppy beer, rating 120 IBUs (whatever those are). However, what distinguished it from the Raging Bitch was that its full-on hoppiness was very well balanced out with malts, making it much easier to drink and giving it a full-bodied flavor. It compared nicely with Ithaca Beer Co.’s CascaZilla red ale, only more so.


So, there’s been another explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. This got me thinking about risk and risk management.

In the engineering sense, “risk” refers to the chance that a particular system will fail and how heavily we weight the consequences of such failures. Risk is present in any design, any system, any process. There’s no way anyone can drive risk to zero, because nobody has perfect knowledge of any system and nobody can predict the future with 100% accuracy. The question is how unlikely and how inconsequential a failure must be to represent an acceptable risk. A complimentary question is how well we plan to deal with those failures when they happen.

BP undoubtedly performed some sort of risk analysis on the Deepwater Horizon platform before it began operations. Engineers must have, at some level, looked at the drilling hardware and procedures and decided that the chance of a catastrophic failure was such-and-such percent. They must also have looked at the cost of dealing with those failures, and come up with so many billion dollars. But all this gets weighed against the potential benefits: if the Deepwater Horizon platform brought in revenue of only a thousand bucks a year, but had an chance of failure of 50%, and the cost to the company of that failure is $20 billion, then BP probably would not have set up the platform the way they did. But if the calculation came out with a one-in-a-million chance of failure, a $20 cost of failure, but revenue of $50 billion per year, then of course they’d go ahead with the project.

The failure of the actual Deepwater Horizon system could mean any one of several things. It could mean that all BP’s risk estimates were correct, and they just got supremely unlucky with that one-in-a-million chance: unlikely, but possible. It could also mean that their analysts made some error: they may have put the chance of failure too low, or the consequence of failure too low, or the potential benefit of success too high. The real trouble with this sort of thinking is that we can’t know for sure where the analysis went wrong, if it did.

However, when we look at BP’s horrendous safety record, the facts that came out about how blasé other oil companies were about drilling, safety, and cleanup in the Gulf, and this second explosion on a platform owned by another company with a dubious safety record (at least, so I heard on NPR), I tend to think there was a problem with the risk analysis. These companies are engaging in higher-risk behaviors in order to get higher payouts. In short: they are getting too greedy. This might not be a problem in some industries, but here, the cost of failure isn’t just borne by the risk-taking companies, but also by the residents of Gulf Coast states (along with the rest of us taxpayers). I hope that these incidents cause the companies in question to revise their risk analyses to be more conservative, especially now that there is wider recognition in our society of the costs of such risky behavior to the wider economy, environment, and climate.

Now, there are good reasons to pursue more high-risk activities, if the potential benefit is high. For instance, there’s my favorite kind of engineering: spacecraft engineering! I would love for NASA to take much greater risks than it currently does!

Current NASA policy, for instance, dictates that any mission should present zero risk to the safety of astronauts on board the Space Station. This policy, which appeared after the Shuttle Columbia broke up on reentry, makes little sense. Remember what I said before about zero risk? It does not and cannot exist. Yet, that’s NASA policy – and the policy has caused NASA to nix some pretty exciting missions for posing, for example, a one in 108 chance of collision with ISS. The chance of Station astronauts getting fried by solar flare radiation or baking when ISS refrigeration units fail or losing their air from a micrometeoroid are likely to be much higher than 1 in 100 million – so what’s the problem? These missions don’t add any danger compared to the dangers that already exist.

Besides, we’re taking about spaceflight. It’s not safe. I mean, we’ve made it pretty safe, but still – it involves strapping people on top of tons of high explosives, pushing them through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds, jolting them around repeatedly as rocket stages separate and fire, and then keeping them alive in a vacuum for days, weeks, or months at a time. Honestly, it’s astonishing that we managed to pull off six Moon landings with only a single failed attempt – and a nonfatal one at that!

I would argue that those tremendous successes in the early space program came from high-risk activities. For the first American manned flight into orbit, NASA put John Glenn on top of a rocket that exploded on three out of its five previous launches. The Gemini Program pioneered the technologies and techniques necessary for a lunar landing (and that we now take for granted in Space Shuttle activities) by trying them out in space to see what happened – that program nearly cost Neil Armstrong and David Scott their lives on Gemini 8. The Apollo 8 mission, which was supposed to orbit the Earth, was upgraded to a lunar swingby – the first time humans visited another planetary body – mere months before launch. But these days, to hear NASA brass and Congressional committee members tell it, no such risks are acceptable. NASA must use “proven technologies.” NASA must accept no more than bruises on its astronauts when they return from missions. NASA must not chance any money, material, or manpower on a mission that might not succeed, even if such success could give us the next great leap forward. And so we end up with manned “exploration” of only low Earth orbit for thirty years, an Apollo reimagining to succeed the Space Shuttle, and, if the House has its way with President Obama’s proposed NASA budget, a space program dedicated to building The Same Big Dumb Rockets That It Already Built for the forseeable future.

Fortunately, we still get to see some envelope-pushing on the robotic exploration side of things. Missions to Mars have only recently broken through to a cumulative success rate greater than 50%, thanks to a string of high-profile successes, and that’s partly because of the ambition involved in landing something on another planet. It’s wonderful to see the progression from the Sojourner to Spirit and Opportunity to Curiosity rovers – but remember that the Beagle rover, Mars Polar Lander, and Mars Climate Orbiter all crashed into the Red Planet. These failures cost money and effort, and perhaps a direction of research in a few academic careers, but not lives, which makes them more acceptable to bear back on Earth. Even if the risk is high, the cost of failures is acceptable compared to the benefits.

Still, there could be more room for audacity (is audacity = 1/risk?) in robotic space exploration. Take the MER mission, for example: a pair of vehicles designed to last for 90 days have been operating for over six years – and counting. In one sense, this is a great success. But in another, it shows that spacecraft engineers are far, far too conservative in their designs. Imagine if they had actually designed the MER rovers to run for 90 days: everyone would have been happy with the mission, and the rovers would have cost less and taken less development time to the tune of something like the ratio between ~2200 and 90 sols. Or, conversely, consider if NASA had been ambitious enough to design a five-year rover mission from the start. That might have seemed laughable when the MERs were launched, but now we know that duration to be well within our capabilities. Because, in fact, we design space missions that rarely stretch those capabilities, since we do not tolerate risk.

This risk aversion in spacecraft engineering is one reason why I (and so many other people) are excited to see companies like SpaceX and Scaled Composites – which aim to turn a profit, something NASA doesn’t have to do! – doing the things they are doing. SpaceX, especially, which had to launch its Falcon 1 rocket several times before it succeeded, but used that experience to pull off a big Falcon 9 launch and secure the largest commercial launch contract ever. It’s also one of the reasons I was so excited about President Obama’s plan for NASA: it looked like NASA would be sticking its neck out for unproven technologies again.

How is it that we as a society tolerate tremendous risk when it comes to activities that affect thousands or even millions of lives on Earth, but we balk at the slightest chance of failure when considering space travel? It’s a puzzle to me.