Sitting among the hangars and laboratories of NASA’s Ames Research Center is McMoon’s; a hacker’s headquarters, converted from an old McDonald’s. Gone are the fast-food counters and dining tables and in are the old tape drives and modern computers. The self-described techno-archaeologists who call this their office have been on a mission to recover and digitize forgotten photos taken in the ’60s by a quintet of scuttled lunar satellites.
"We’re reaching back to a capability that existed but couldn’t be touched back when it was created," says Keith Cowing, co-lead and founding member at LOIRP (Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project). "It’s like having a DVD in 1966, you can’t play it. We had resolution of the Earth of about a kilometer [per pixel].
Taking old data caught on 1500 analog data tapes the team has brought back some 2,000 pictures. They contain the first high-resolution photographs ever taken from behind the lunar horizon, including the first photo of an earthrise. Thanks to the technical savvy and DIY engineering of the team at LOIRP, it’s now being seen at a higher resolution than was ever previously possible.
Between 1966 and ‘67, five Lunar Orbiters snapped pictures onto 70mm film from about 30 miles above the moon. The satellites were sent mainly to scout potential landing sites for manned moon missions.The images were beamed in modulated signals to one of three receiving stations in Australia, Spain, or California, where the pictures were recorded straight to tape. After this the five orbiters were rather unceremoniously laid to rest amongst the moon rocks.
But now, decades later, the LOIRP team have tracked down these data tapes and tirelessly pulled the stunning data captured within them. Much of this data even surpasses today’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s resolution.
"A lot of the images they’re taking today, our imagery from 1966 and ‘67 has sometimes greater resolution and greater dynamic range because of the way the pictures were taken. So sometimes you look into a shadow in a picture that LRO’s taken, and you don’t see any detail — with ours, you do."
After proving that their work with the LOIRP project was providing very useful results, NASA agreed to fund the rogue team and has done since 2008, before which the project was funded entirely from the hackers own pockets.
Check out the LOIRP team’s results in the mini gallery below.
Earthrise as seen by Lunar Orbiter 1 1966
Tsiolkovskiy, a large impact crater located on the far side of the Moon as seen by Lunar Orbiter 3 1967
Medium resolution image taken by Lunar Orbiter 3 1967
Crater Copernicus as seen by Lunar Orbiter 2 1966
Straight shot of the Lunar surface taken by Lunar Orbiter 2 1966
The moon’s far side taken by Lunar Orbiter 2 1966
Second earthrise image with the Moon’s far side surface and the Sea of Tsiolkovsky prominently featured.
A closeup of Tsiolkovskiy impact crater
Lunar Orbiter 4 photograph showing a crescent Earth and partly illuminated Moon.