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Behind the counter of an abandoned McDonalds lie 48,000 lbs of 70mm tape… the only copy of extremely high-resolution images of the moon.

These tapes were recorded 40 years ago by Lunar Orbiter 1 to map the lunar surface to plan landing spots for Apollo 11 onward. They have never been seen by the public because at the time, they were classified as they reveal the extreme precision of our spy satellites. Instead, all we have ever seen are the grainy photo-of-a-photo images that were released to the public.

The spacecraft did not ship this film back to Earth. Instead, they developed the film on the Lunar Orbiter and then raster scanned the negatives with a 5 micron spot (200 lines/millimeter resolution) and beamed the data back to Earth using yet-to-be-patented-by-others lossless analog compression. Three ground stations on Earth (one was in Madrid) recorded the transmissions on these magnetic tapes.

Recovering the data has proven to be very difficult, requiring technological archeology. The only working version of the Ampex tape player ($300K when new) was discovered in a chicken coop and restored with the help of the original designer. There is only one person on Earth who still refurbishes these tape heads, and he is retiring this year. The skills to read this data archive are on the cusp of disappearing forever.

Some of the applications of this project, beyond accessing the best images of the moon ever taken, are to look for new landing sites for the new Google Lunar X-Prize robo-landers, and to compare the new craters on the moon today to 40 years ago, a measure of micrometeorite flux and risk to future lunar operations.

jimheid, moonmeister, vanerj, and 55 other people added this photo to their favorites.

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  1. jimheid 81 months ago | reply

    Was telling my brother about this spectacular project (and your spectacular photostream) and stumbled on this: a presentation at Apple's WWDC 2009 by Dennis Wingo on this project.

    I'd have *loved* to have seen that!

  2. Kirk Fraser 78 months ago | reply

    When I was a mainframe computer operator years ago, I was told the tapes we were using had to be rewritten every 5 years or they'd lose data due to magnetic degradation. Of course images are less sensitive to random losses than corporate financial data but it makes me wonder how long the McData will be useful? Is it still worth reading? Is someone really going to publish a better map of the moon than National Geographic did - before people settle up there? What is the real meaning of the woman on the moon in Revelation 12 and where will she be standing?

  3. jurvetson 78 months ago | reply

    Technology Review just printed a photo essay on this project.

    And if you missed my earlier post, this is the tape recovery effort at McMoon:

    Pirate McDonalds

  4. keithcowing 62 months ago | reply

    The official website for the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) is - images, news, project history, participatory exploration - and more.

  5. bike-R 44 months ago | reply

    Oh WOW, can I get a Large Fry to go? Seriuosly, this is a real grass roots effort and hope it continues well into the future..............with no SHAKE_UPS:))

  6. jurvetson 44 months ago | reply

    I just checked in with them today...
    and sure enough, they were busy at work trying to get the tape drive to behave.

    They have recovered quite a but more... Updates here

    LOIRP pirate logo

  7. ukweli 44 months ago | reply

    Marvelous! Just when I think I know about the weirdest human endeavour currently underway. Thanks so much for your wildly interesting photo stream Steve.

    These images of the moon are awesome!

  8. dsfportree 44 months ago | reply

    But this is project isn't unique, as best I can tell from what McMoon has published so far. USGS owns the same material and has done very similar work with it in recent years. Everything we have has been scanned. One of my students worked with the digital data based on USGS scans of LO films to identify pyroclastic deposits in several places on the lunar surface, for example. This USGS work has been showcased at Lunar and Planetary Science Conferences and appears in the scientific literature. I'm not here to attack what you are doing, just to point out that it might not be unique. I'm not sure whether you've had any contact with USGS on this, but it might be worth your time.

  9. jurvetson 44 months ago | reply

    I am not working on any of this, and so the more background the better. It's al new to me. Thanks.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but USGS scanned a copy of the original, and this new project is gaining greater resolution as well as the formerly unscanned Lunar Orbiter II images (at the request of USGS). Here is a comparison of the two that they pulled together:

  10. olafsen 44 months ago | reply

    Héctor García JPEG will be fine, but think to all people using RAW files...

  11. Riccardo Mori 44 months ago | reply

    This is just amazing. Amazing amazing amazing.

  12. J Dueck 44 months ago | reply

    The "format" of the pics isn't really a problem; if the pictures existed in digital form at all then we would be able to decode them with comparatively little trouble. The problem is the physicial medium.

  13. bike-R 44 months ago | reply

    DIGITAL ROT..............will affect future genrations more so of data seekers and with all our pics and info being stored on CD and memory cards and locked in trashed PC's andl laptops and cellphones, who know how much will be lost?

  14. offtothemoon 44 months ago | reply


    Thanks for coming by yesterday, we are back to busily scanning images today. Come on back by.

    As for the comments that what we have is not unique, I would beg to differ. First, we would not be able to do our job without all of the hard work from the Lunar and Planetary Institute, and the folks at USGS. Reprinting my comments from another forum on why our data is of higher dynamic range than what the USGS has:


    There is no such thing as undegraded film, just as there is no such thing as undegraded tape. I have been doing archival retrieval work since the mid 1980's and one of my first jobs in this area was digitizing several million microfilm records from the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force.

    I wrote original papers on the relative degradation of Silver Halide film vs the Diazo process. I was a test engineer on the equipment that digitized thousands of aperture cards of microfilm per hour.

    This project was DSREDS/EDCARS and was the first terabyte class document scanning project in history.

    When NASA recorded the images on the 2" video tape they recorded them in "pre demodulation" format. This means that the analog scans of the 70mm film on the spacecraft were combined with the digital telemetry from the spacecraft and transmitted to the Earth.

    On the Earth the images were written to the tape drives before they were demodulated and then the demodulated data was displayed on a kinescope that generated the 35mm film that you have at USGS.

    The pre demodulated data on the tapes, we have recreated by using modern technology to demodulate the analog scans and telemetry data. The analog data is digitized at 16 bits and 5 megasamples per second, approximately 10x overscan from the original frequency domain of the analog image information, coupled with a 65,535 dynamic range, approximately a factor of 6,500 above the dynamic range of the original data.

    This is possible due to the cheap cost of hard drives today.

    We have shown beyond any shadow of a doubt that the images produced from our method has superior grey scale resolution than the best of the USGS film scans. We work in a very collegial fashion with the folks at USGS and it is unfortunate that you take this belligerent and factually incorrect tact in your responses to this article.

    The pre demodulated format preserves entirely the original quality of the data from the spacecraft. The demodulator that we use takes the FM signal and demodulates that. It is further demodulated from a "Vestigial Side Band" (VSB) format which can be considered to be an early form of analog compression.

    This preserves the data in its original full dynamic range. The degradation that we get today are from flaws in the analog tape that create transitory artifacts but do not effect the dynamic range or resolution of the images.

    In our reproductions of the Apollo 14 landing site that we published we were honored when one of the flight controllers from that mission emailed us and said that if they had our images in front of them when the astronauts were looking for the crater that was their main mission objective, they would have found it.

    Our images clearly showed a rock that the crew was standing on one side of when the crater was on the other side. This was the major objective of the mission that was missed because they only had the images derived from film at that time.

    We are quite proud of our work and it has been honored for its quality and for our work to save our legacy from the Apollo era. The USGS also does great work and I have great admiration for the folks in Flagstaff

  15. spotcutter 44 months ago | reply

    Would you like fries with that?

  16. jurvetson 36 months ago | reply

    and now you can help crowdfund the project

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