NASA is scrambling to stay one step ahead of an information tidal wave.
A gusher of cosmic data soon will stream from the skies - from the next generation of satellites, spaceships, computers, high-tech sensors and high-speed communications systems.To avoid choking on the "data explosion," NASA is developing new ways to store, catalogue and retrieve the information. Otherwise an uncontrolled data glut might bury crucial discoveries - just as an earlier glut delayed by years the detection of Antarctica's notorious "ozone hole."
The information explosion could begin as early as next year, when NASA may launch new unmanned space probes and satellites, such as the Magellan probe to Venus, the Galileo probe to Jupiter, and the Hubble Space Telescope.
Magellan, which will use radar to map the Venusian surface, "will produce more data in 18 months than all existing planetary (missions) to date," said Mike Martin of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
By itself, NASA's manned space station, scheduled for completion in 1998, will generate in a single day as much data as in a stack of computer floppy disks 71/2 miles high, one expert said. The $16 billion station will house astronauts from the United States, Japan and Europe.
"What we're getting now (from space) is a drop in the bucket compared to what we'll get in the future," said John Estes of University of California-Santa Barbara. "We've got to get very smart on how we handle, store, process that data and get it out to our scientists."
In the mid-1990s, NASA's fleet of Earth Observing System spacecraft is expected to transmit 10 trillion bits of data each day, said Roger Kahn of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., in an article for the science journal "Eos."
In contrast, "The Washington, D.C., phone book (white pages) contains only about one-10,000th this amount (of) information," Kahn wrote.
"To put this another way, if you could read and absorb a quantity of data comparable to two 200-page books per week, it would take over 5,000 years to ingest a single day's data." Moses lived about 3,300 years ago.
In a report issued last month, the National Research Council offered an even higher forecast: up to 10 quadrillion bits a day, or 100 to 1,000 times greater than Kahn's estimate.
To put things in perspective, 10 quadrillion bits is 6 million times the storage capacity of a 20-megabyte personal computer, like a Macintosh or IBM.