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Intergalactic Black Box
A data recorder recovered by NASA investigators after the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia in February 2003 helped them reconstruct the causes of the disaster. But luck played a big part: the device had not been designed to survive breakup or impact. Now engineers at the Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo, CA, are testing a device that can record factors such as temperature, acceleration, and mechanical stresses on a space vehicle as it begins to break up, then detach and carry the data safely through the plasma blaze of reentry. The recorder is about 25 centimeters across and resembles a blunt-tipped rocket cone. Its shield of insulating foam is extremely light, says William Ailor, the Aerospace engineer leading the development of the device. Once it drops into the upper atmosphere, the recorder simply falls to the earth, transmitting its data to satellites before it’s destroyed on impact. Ailor says the company has successfully dropped prototypes of the device from balloons and will have a model ready to fly on expendable rockets next year.

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