Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP), based at NASA Ames Research Center, has undertaken the task of translating the original analog data from 1,500 tapes taken from the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft into digital form. The Lunar Orbiter images were taken in the 1960s by cameras onboard five separate Lunar Orbiter spacecraft. They were captured on magnetic tapes and then transferred to film for analysis. Unfortunately, the full resolution of those images was not available because the technology didn’t exist to extract it all. Thankfully, the tapes were saved from destruction decades ago by Nancy Evans, co-creator of the Planetary Data System. Now the digitized LOIRP images, which are the highest-resolution taken of the lunar surface to date, can finally be analyzed.

LOIRP, the brainchild of Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing, has faced many challenges, including resurrecting antiquated equipment and image processing techniques. “If we hadn’t done this now, it wouldn’t have been possible,” said Dennis Wingo, head of the LOIRP team. For example, Edwardo Lailao, the VMI Rotating Head Engineering Lead, is the last person in the world that still knows how to refurbish these heads. Gathering the requisite knowledge base was critical to reviving the ability to play all the tapes. Recently the team ran undemodulated tapes from Lunar Orbiter 1, 2, and 5 and verified that the data on the tapes can be demodulated, answering a major question about the quality of the recorded data on the tapes.

The August 23, 1966 image of the Earth shown below was the first image of the Earth as seen from the Moon. This reconstructed image was the first determination of image quality as compared to the Lunar and Planetary Science database image. A much larger image that has been manually retouched and enhanced for publication can be downloaded here
[1.2GB TIFF]. All of the reconstructed images will be delivered to the planetary data system and made publicly available. This will have significant value to the scientific community as the mid 1960’s was the depth of a global cooling climate interlude that is very sparsely known from the remote sensing and climate science perspective. For instance, if the Snow and Ice Center has an image from the same day, the possibility exists to generate a global cloud cover image of the earth from that day, which would be the oldest image of this type. Furthermore, comparing the oldest lunar images with data from current missions such as LRO may shed light on crater formation and the moon’s impact history, and help answer other important lunar science questions.

An excellent editorial from the New York Times gives eloquent consideration to this historic photograph and to how our planet looked when it had only half its population.

The LOIRP team owes a great deal of thanks to Ken Davidian, formerly of NASA HQ, who provided the initial funding to accomplish this task; in addition, the team thanks John Olson and Doug Comstock of NASA HQ for their important support to this project.

Posted by: Soderman/ NLSI Staff
Source and image credit: Wingo/ LOIRP Staff

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