IT aids NASA search for shuttle clues

Information technology is taking a prominent role in solving the mystery of what caused the breakup of space shuttle Columbia.

In the days following the crash that killed seven astronauts, IT has emerged as both a source of clues and a tool for managing the multiagency investigation.

Agencies have deployed geographic information systems and radar to track the location of the shuttle's debris, which has been found in Texas and Louisiana.

"Oddly enough, in these counties around Texas, [they] have some of the best GIS systems, and of course we're putting a lot of [Global Positioning System]-type systems down there and [are] in the process of transitioning what initially were maps with pins of where things were found into formal digital products to track the known and the expected debris field," said Maj. Gen. Mike Kostelnik, deputy associate administrator for NASA's office of space flight, at a news briefing.

Technology is also being used to look back at the past. NASA collects telemetry from the shuttle, which is converted into digital format by the spacecraft's computers and sent to Earth. Readings on temperatures and other measurements are being examined as pieces of the puzzle. Additionally, the agency is trying to recover 32 seconds of corrupted data.

The agency has begun modeling the information and doing regression analysis to explore such unexplained phenomena as the temperature rise and loss of sensors on the shuttle's left wing, said space shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore.

Dibya Sarkar contributed to this story.

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