Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project

"Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project"

March 5th, 2013


We are looking for people to help us complete the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP). We call this technoarchaeology - mining the past to support science in the future.  Between 1966 and 1967, NASA sent five Lunar Orbiter missions to the Moon. Their mission was to photograph the lunar surface to help identify future Apollo mission landing sites.  The spacecraft carried 70mm photographic film which was developed automatically in lunar orbit aboard the spacecraft.  The developed film was then scanned with a light beam and this modulated a signal which was sent back to Earth. 

Each image was archived on analog data tape and printed out as photographs for use by the Lunar Orbiter analysis team.  In addition to looking for landing sites, the Lunar Orbiters also produced several stunning photos unlike anything ever seen before. Of note are the "Earthrise" image taken by Lunar Orbiter 1 and the "Picture of the Century" - an oblique view inside the crater Copernicus, taken by Lunar Orbiter 2.

Our imagery was featured prominently on the editorial page of the New York Times and a statement honoring our success was made on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and entered into the congressional record. Our "before" picture of the Apollo 11 landing site was featured with an "after" image taken by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter of the same location at the official 40th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 mission. In early 2013, one of our images was featured in materials handed out in the official package at the Presidential Inauguration. 

By using these old images of the Moon and ones taken recently, we can offer a time machine of sorts whereby changes in the lunar surface over the past half century can be identified.  We have also used our project as a way to preserve these historic images in a way befitting their importance to the human exploration of the Moon.  Our students have also done original science by comparing our highest resolution images with the latest high resolution images of the Moon to look for changes that could indicate quakes, meteor impacts, or volcanism.  But more work remains to be done.  This is where you come in. 

Over the past 5 years, we have been given a number of things relating to the Lunar Orbiter program by original participants in the program. We were most fortunate to receive a number of photographic printouts used during the landing site evaluation process from the personal collections of Don Wilhelms and Don Davis. They donated these materials with the expressed intent that they be used - including by sale or auction - to support our work at LOIRP.    I have added images from my personal collection of microfilm images.

Your generosity will allow us to get up to five tape drive heads refurbished, which are necessary to run the tapes as the tapes act like sandpaper to grind the heads down.  Your generosity will also allow us to pay our engineering team that maintains the 1960’s tape drives, plays the over 700 remaining tapes that we have (at one hour per tape), processes the digital data (over 20 terabytes so far), creates the images (over 600 so far and another 850 to go), and does the paperwork to provide the images to the National Space Science Data Center where they will be archived for the science community.  The images are also provided on our public site ( ), via our Facebook page at and follow us at twitter (#LunarOrbiter).  These images will be provided at full resolution for free to anyone that wants them as this data was originally obtained with tax dollars and we wish to provide these to as many people as possible.

We are asking for your support. As an incentive we can offer you several things: depending on your generosity, we can provide one of the original 1960’s era printouts donated by Don Wilhelms and Don Davis. No two are a like - and all are guaranteed to be authentic.  Secondly, we offer you the satisfaction of helping us retrieve these images in a fashion that allows them to be used once again in the exploration of the Moon today and in the future.

Published Articles About Our Project

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