NASA Restoring Dust Data From Apollo Missions
December 6, 2012

NASA Restoring Dust Data From Apollo Missions

Peter Suciu for — Your Universe Online

Our modern society is typically removing dust; including dust in the air, dust on surfaces and of course dust in our electronics. While most dust is considered just something that gathers on old books and other flat surfaces, some dust is apparently worth preserving and even restoring.

On Thursday NASA announced that 40 years after the last Apollo spacecraft launched and headed to the moon the scientific research from those missions continues. This includes readings from the Apollo 14 and Apollo 15 dust detectors, which scientists with the National Space Science Data Center (NSSDC) and NASA´s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. have managed to restore.

“This is the first look at the fully calibrated, digital dust data from the Apollo 14 and 15 missions,” said David Williams, a Goddard scientist and data specialist at NSSDC, NASA´s permanent archive for space science mission data.

This is not the first piece of moon-related material to be restored. In 2009 NASA had successfully completed partial restoration of the Apollo 11 video streams, including a two-minute montage that shows highlights of the first moonwalk. This video is now available on the NASA website.

But the ability to analyze the dust is something that was unexpected and could result in new research. The newly available data will make long-term analysis of the moon missions´ dust readings possible. The digital data from those two experiments had not actually been archived before, and it is believed that roughly the last year-and-a-half of the data has never even been studied.

The work was first presented on Thursday at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, and was part of a session organized in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 17 launch, which was the 11th and final mission of NASA's Apollo program.

This sixth mission to land humans on the moon, and the first night launch of U.S. human spaceflight, remains the most recent crewed flight beyond low Earth orbit, and the final crewed launch of a Saturn V rocket.

The session in San Francisco also included efforts to fill in gaps in the Apollo 15 and 17 heat-flow measurements, the only such measurements ever taken on the moon or any planetary body other than Earth.

The recovery of this data is considered important as it is part of the Lunar Data Project, an ongoing NSSDC effort, which continues to draw on researchers at multiple institutions. The goal is to make the scientific data from Apollo available in modern formats.

In the case of the Lunar Dust Detectors, they were placed on the lunar surface during the Apollo 14 and 15 missions to measure dust accumulation, temperature and damage caused by high-energy cosmic particles and the sun´s ultraviolet radiation. The same kind of instrument had flown earlier on Apollo 11 and 12, but a different type of dust detector was used in the final Apollo 17 mission.

The process of restoring the data has been a painstaking job that required going through each data set and separating the raw detector counts from temperatures and other “housekeeping” information that was collected at the time. Additionally, a second, less complete data sets were used to indicate how to convert the raw counts into usable measurements. To accomplish this the second data set had to be converted from microfilm, as it had been archived since the 1970s.

The two data sets also had to be reconciled because their time points didn't match up exactly. Most of this meticulous work was carried out by Marie McBride, an undergraduate from the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne who was working with Williams through a NASA internship.

This will also likely not be the end of the line, or the “dust to dust” for this dust, as new missions, including NASA´s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) continue to study lunar dust.

“It´s one of those questions that scientists keep coming back to,” McBride added. The main objective of NASA´s Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), scheduled to launch in 2013, is to characterize the moon´s atmosphere and dust environment.

As noted by NASA´s Noah Petro, a member of the LRO project science team at Goddard: “A mission ends when it ends, but the science continues forever.”

It might be time to dust off that research and see what else they can find.