Monday, June 15, 2009

Life Imitating Art, Or Something Like That

If you've read The Last Protector (and if you haven't, you may want to click the Instant Gratification link and buy a copy before reading the rest of this sentence), you know that a big part of the story revolves around old computer records that nobody can read anymore. It takes time--time the heroes don't always have--to find the storage media, build the necessary devices to actually read it, crack the encoding scheme and see if there's actually any "there" there. My inspiration for this part of the book was my own experience with computers--it seemed that I was constantly having problems with obsolete data storage. We'd migrate from eight-inch to five-inch to mini-floppy disks, each time discovering there was some piece of essential information that existed only in the obsolete format. Then there was the mad scramble to find a machine somewhere in the lab that could still read these old disks.

So I was more than a little amused when I came across this Associated Press news video:

YouTube: McMoon

NASA has re-discovered the images made by the Lunar Orbiter project back in the 1960s. Thousands of reels of magnetic tape had somehow escaped the dumpster and are now being digitally processed into absolutely stunning images... in a lab set up in an abandoned McDonalds. How's that for "Stranger than Fiction"?

I remember the Lunar Orbiter project of the 1960s. Given the technology of the day, the orbiter spacecraft were works of absolute genius--space-compatible high-resolution video cameras were years away, so cameras in space were film cameras. Spy satellites routinely sent film canisters re-entering the atmosphere over the Pacific, to be snagged by airplanes and rushed to the processing lab. Moon probes had no such luxury, so the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft shot film (through a pair of truly powerful cameras), developed it inside the spacecraft, and then transmitted the image back to earth one line at a time via an early version of fax-machine technology. The image data, in the form of an analog signal mapping the brightness of the film, was recorded on big spools of magnetic tape. Those spools of tape survived some four decades with their signals intact (people knew how to make magnetic tape in those days). Just as important, at least one tape drive capable of reading the tapes survived in working order (in TLP, Jape and the gang at Ranger Control aren't so lucky--they have to construct the necessary machines to read 200-year-old data files).

As it turns out, the data stored on the tapes contains much more detail and clarity than the printing systems of the 1960s could handle. With a little digital processing of the tape data, NASA's getting images with much higher quality than we got during the space race. In fact, the Lunar Orbiter images, properly processed to access all the information they contain, are the sharpest, clearest, most detailed images of the moon taken by any spacecraft... ever!

The picture accompanying this posting is the iconic "Earthrise" shot by Lunar Orbiter in 1966 (and re-shot, in color, by Apollo 8 two years later). You can click on it to see a somewhat bigger view--or you can click here to view the full-resolution version on NASA's web site (be warned, it's a pretty big file).

I'm waiting for NASA to release some of the low-angle photos, the ones taken by Lunar Orbiters grazing down to something like ten miles above the surface. Even in the old NASA book The Moon As Seen By Lunar Orbiter these shots are spectacular. In a new digital restoration, I bet they'll be absolutely staggering.

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