Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Earthrise" as seen in 1966

A five-year effort to recover nearly 50-year-old images of the moon is seeking public support to keep the project going.

Since 2008, Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) has been reprocessing data received from five unmanned NASA spacecraft in the 1960s. The Lunar Orbiters, tasked with imaging potential landing sites for the Apollo manned missions that were set to follow, made their own history by taking the first photos from lunar orbit.

Started with funding from volunteers and initially supported financially by NASA, the LOIRP team of retired engineers and scientists, together with students, have recovered and enhanced 600 out of the more than 1,400 images taken by the Lunar Orbiters in 1966 and 1967.

The project was made possible by pairing the program's tape drives, found inside a farmer's barn, and analog data tapes with modern laptops and spare parts purchased off eBay. Run on a shoestring budget, the project is housed in an abandoned McDonald's located near NASA's Ames Research Center in Northern California. 

Their NASA funding exhausted, the LOIRP team has now turned to online crowd-funding for the backing needed to finish processing the remaining 850 images of the moon. At the time this article was published, nearly $40,000 had been raised toward the team's goal of $75,000 through the RocketHub website.

The funds raised so far have allowed for the refurbishment of two of LOIRP's five tape drive heads. The team is also looking to pay the engineering team that maintains the 50 year old tape drives.

Two days remain for the public to contribute. In return, the LOIRP team is offering a number of Lunar Orbiter-related collectibles, ranging from a 3D-printed model of the moon probe to vintage prints and microfilm copies of the original Lunar Orbiter imagery.

Peering into the moon's past

The five Lunar Orbiter missions predated even the earliest attempts at digital photography by nearly a decade and so to transmit their images back to Earth, each spacecraft carried the equipment to develop and then scan the film it captured. The resulting transmissions, once on the ground were then printed in long strips and manually reassembled to form complete images. 

The images were low resolution — they were essentially copies of copies — but they were good enough to identify potential landing sites for Apollo missions to the moon.

Fortunately, the foresight existed to also record the data transmissions onto analog tapes.

By rescanning those tapes, which if it was not for LOIRP were at risk of being erased — the team has been able to do more than reproduce the same low resolution images seen 47 years ago, but enhance the resolution to reveal new details. The result is more than just producing striking photos — although the project has done that too, including the iconic "Earthrise" image and the so-called "picture of the century," an oblique view inside the crater Copernicus — but developing new data for scientific study.

By comparing the newly-recovered Lunar Orbiter images to the photographs taken more recently byNASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter launched in 2009, changes on the moon's surface can be identified. Students working with the LOIRP team have already looked for the signs of lunar quakes, meteor impacts, and volcanism.

All the LOIRP recovered images are being provided to the National Space Science Data Center, where they will be archived for the science community, and shared online for the public to see. The team is providing the full-resolution images at no cost, in part because the data was originally obtained with tax dollars and because they want to make the photos available to as many people as possible.

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