November 13, 2008

A New Look At The Old Moon

The old moon has a fresh look, after NASA released a newly restored 42-year-old image of Earth on Thursday.

Mankind's first up-close photos of the lunar landscape have been rescued from four decades of dusty storage, and they've been restored to rival anything taken by modern cameras.

In 1966, the Lunar Orbiter 1 spacecraft took the iconic photograph of Earth rising above the lunar surface.

NASA used refurbished machinery and modern digital technology, and produced the image at a much higher resolution than was possible when  it was originally taken.

The project cost a quarter million dollars and was paid for by private enterprises and NASA.

"This is an incredible image," said private space entrepreneur Dennis Wingo, who spearheaded the project. "In terms of raw resolution, there has been no mission that has flown since or even today that is as good."

In 1966 and 1967, NASA sent five Lunar Orbiters to the moon to take up-close photos to prepare for man's first visit in 1969.

The government says the probes shot the pictures, developed the film and beamed back the images to Earth, where they were stored on specialized tapes that require a certain type of machine to be seen.

The astronauts who landed on the moon took additional photos and the initial Lunar Orbiter images were forgotten in time.

The tapes with the images were put in storage, and were offered free to anyone who would haul them away.

"I said 'I'll take them,'" recalled Nancy Evans, a former NASA planetary photo chief.

Evans stored four of the 1,000-pound machines in her garage, which remained unused for about two decades.

Space exploration fans heard about the old tapes and stored machines and went to work at historical renovation. They took over a shuttered McDonald's at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and patched together one working machine to read the tapes.

"It's a tremendous feeling to restore a 40-year-old image and know it can be useful to future explorers," said Gregory Schmidt, deputy director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute at Ames.

"Now that we've demonstrated the capability to retrieve images, our goal is to complete the tape drives' restoration and move toward retrieving all of the images on the remaining tapes," he added.

Wingo's partner, Keith Cowing, head of Spaceref Interactive, which runs space-themed Web sites says the pictures could prove useful.

He said when NASA launches its next high-tech lunar probe in the spring, the agency can compare detailed high-resolution images from 1966 to 2009 and see what changes occurred. "What this gives you is literally before and after photos," Cowing said. "This is like a time machine."

As the images are processed, they will be submitted to the Planetary Data System, part of NASA's Space Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The images also will be calibrated with standard mapping coordinates from the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Research Program in Flagstaff, Ariz.

NASA will launch the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2009 to map the
moon's surface.


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