It was one of the most iconic and heart-stopping movie images of 2003: the Columbia Space Shuttle ignited, burning and crashing to earth in fragments.

Now, amazingly, data from a hard drive recovered from the fragments has been used to complete a physics experiment – CXV-2 – that took place on the doomed Shuttle mission.

Columbia’s fragments were painstakingly and exhaustively collected. Amongst them was a 400MB Seagate hard drive which was in the sort of shape you think it would be in after being in an explosive fire and then hurled to earth from several miles up with a ferocious impact.

The Johnson Space Centre workers analysing the shuttle crash sent it off the CVX-2 (Critical Viscosity of Xenon) experiment engineers, who sent it on to Kroll Ontrack in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to see if the data, any data, could be recovered. For researcher Robert Berg and his team it was the only hope, a terribly slim hope, of salvaging significant data from the experiment looking at Xenon gas flows in microgravity.

The Kroll people managed to recover 90 percent or so of the 400MB of data from the drive with its cracked and burned casing. Now, a few years on, Berg and his team have analysed the data and reported the experiment and its results in the April edition of the Physical Review E journal. These showed that, rather liked whipped cream which changes from a fluid to a near-solid after being whipped or stirred vigorously, the gas Xenon change its viscosity from gas to liquid when similarly treated in very low gravity. The phenomenon of a sudden change in viscosity is called shear thinning.

It was a highly complex experiment needing prologed and detailed analysis of the data on the hard drive to discover the shear thinning effect. But it, like the drive, was eventually found. So ends a twenty-year research project and in doing so helps bring to a finish the dreadful story of the Columbia Space Shuttle mission.

Official URL Link