Monday, November 17, 2008

Stuff on the Web: NASA goes back to the future

I hope that everyone had a good weekend. While I was rummaging through the wilds of the internet this past Sunday, I stumbled on a couple of articles about a NASA project. It is called the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP). Basically, NASA is restoring the images that it's various Lunar Orbiters transmitted back to Earth during the 1960s. NASA sent the orbiters the map the surface of the Moon in order to find suitable landing sites for the Apollo landing missions. Those orbiters mapped most of the moon's surface and sent back the first image of the Earth rising over the Moon's horizon. It is perhaps one of the most famous images from the orbiters.

With NASA planning a return of manned missions to the Moon, it is perhaps not surprising that they are restoring those old orbiter images using modern digital processing techniques. There are many old magnetic tapes that they have or are in the processing of restoring. Additionally, they needed to restore the machinery that was originally used to record and playback the data on the tapes. NASA has been restudying many aspects of it's first Lunar Exploration era including examining the Apollo capsules, the heat shields, etc. as part of it's return to the Moon directive. That they are restoring these images really doesn't surprise me in and off themselves. What is notable though, is the quality of these restored images which is due in large measure to the ingenuity of the design of the original Lunar Orbiter's camera systems.

The orbiters had two camera systems, a wide-angle and a telephoto camera. The cameras recorded their images on to film. In fact they used the same frames of film using a complex feed mechanism that synchronized the frames from one camera to another. This accounts for the high quality of the data that NASA can now extract from the original tapes. After the images were captures, the orbiters then developed the film, scanned the processed film and then transmitted that film back to NASA here on Earth where the historic images we have seen for the past 40 years were printed. Quite an accomplishment. I hadn't realized that the orbiters back then used film and had to develop it out in space. Plus, the fact they essentially converted that film image into a digital-type of data stream was really impressed me. Remember that this was all done without the modern digital tools that we are accustomed to using today. It puts the printer/scanner that is sitting on my desk in to a whole new perspective for me.

For further reading about the LOIRP, here are a few articles that I found:

The website MoonViews has several articles about the LOIRP as well as other Lunar Imaging initiatives.

Gizmodo has the first article that I found about the LOIRP and a nice large sized version of the Earthrise image.

CNET also has a good article about it that includes some YouTube video of the NASA press conference.

That NASA is restoring these images makes a lot of sense to me. They should contain quite a bit of information that will be crucial to the current Lunar program. The quality of the images though looks to be astonishing, and is a credit to the original designers of the Lunar Orbiters. That only today are we able to extract all of the data in the tapes shows the ingenuity that made the first Lunar Exploration era the success that it became.

Keep shooting.

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