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Forgotten Apollo Data Could Solve Moon Dust Problem

An IMB 726, a precursor of the 729 data recorder.  Credit: IBM

An IMB 726, a precursor of the 729 data recorder. Credit: IBM

Old, forgotten data from three Apollo moon missions could help overcome one of the biggest environmental hurdles facing future lunar colonists. Pervasive moon dust can clog equipment, scratch helmet visors –or worse, get inside astronaut lungs and cause serious health problems. But 173 data tapes hold information that could be essential in overcoming the problems the dust causes. The only trouble is that the tapes are archived on “ancient” 1960’s technology and no one could find the right equipment to playback the tapes. However, the Australian Computer Museum has an old IBM729 Mark 5 tape drive that should do the trick, IF the machine can be restored to operable condition again…

The IBM729 Mark 5 tape recorder is about as big as a household refrigerator. It recorded data from Apollo 11, 12 and 14 missions that carried “dust detectors.” Information from the detectors was beamed back to earth and recorded onto tapes. Copies of the tapes were supposedly sent to NASA, but the tapes were lost or misplaced before they could be archived in NASA’s holdings. But the original data tapes have sat in Perth, Australia for almost 40 years.

Physicist Brian O’Brien invented the detectors. He wrote a couple of papers on the information in the 1970’s, but no one was very interested in moon dust back them. However now, scientists realize this information could help make future missions to the moon more feasible.

Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan covered with moon dust.  Credit: NASA

Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan covered with moon dust. Credit: NASA

“These were the only active measurements of moon dust made during the Apollo missions, and no one thought it was important,” said O’Brien. “But it’s now realised that dust, to quote Harrison Schmitt, who was the last astronaut to leave the moon, is the number one environmental problem on the moon.”

O’Brien quit his work on lunar dust when he left the University of Sydney. Two years ago, someone at NASA remembered the data had been taken, but couldn’t find the duplicate tapes.

O’Brien says there is no indication as to when exactly the tapes were lost, but he guesses that it was “way, way back.” When O’Brien learned of the tape loss, he was contacted by Guy Holmes from a data recovery company who offered to try and extract the information on the old, original tapes. But Holmes realized he needed some old equipment to do the job, and came across the right IBM tape drive at the Australian Computer Museum.

The archaic-looking recorder is in need of refurbishing, however. Holmes jokes that a 1970s Toyota Corolla fan belt could be used to get the recorder up and running.

“The drives are extremely rare, we don’t know of any others that are still operating,” he said.

“It’s going to have to be a custom job to get it working again. It’s certainly not simple, there’s a lot of circuitry in there, it’s old, it’s not as clean as it should be and there’s a lot of work to do.”

Holmes is hopeful of getting the tape recorder working again in January, and then he says it should only take a week to extract information that has been locked away since the early 1970s.

Source: Australia’s ABC News


Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • dbdncr November 12, 2008, 7:50 AM

    First thing to know about these computers is that there was no operating system as people know them today… You loaded a bootstrap routine in various registers using parity/non-parity octal or hex commands in order to get things moving. Lotsa 1 and 0’s before it ran on its on, basic machine code function/data commands.

    I’m sure there are plenty of people who either still remember the days before compilers or could figure it out easy enough.

    Decoding would be based around the instruments used to collect the data. You’d have to know the engineering / specs and after that it would be fairly straight-forward.

    For instance, and assuming the data is digital, using nothing fancier than 16 bit hex machine code. The actual data would have been stored back with the instrument address, you just have to know the engineering of the instrument to figure out what D 0011 A10E translated to.

  • dollhopf November 13, 2008, 12:06 AM

    dbdncr, I do not have the faintest idea what you are talking about, but if it would work that would be great.

  • Eric November 14, 2008, 9:31 AM

    I actually do know what dbdncr said. Not sure if that’s a good thing or not…

    Anybody remember pcx files from the early 90s? There is less of a chance of old media files no longer working, since there’s always people to program converters (I have emulators for C64 programs). But you still have to wonder about some media of today…

  • Kevin S November 19, 2008, 4:38 PM

    I’m afraid we’ll lose one heck-of-a lot of treasured data over the coming decades. As our propensity to archive and log every bit of information, overload eventually happens. Imagine all of the movie footage that is NOT used in the final edit, all of the revisions in novels or magazine stories that COULD be archived. Who determines how long to archive e-mail at businesses?

    When a probe is in transit from earth to (you name it), do we archive all of the bits transmitted during the voyage? When it’s time to purge, to sort the wheat from the chaff, WHO makes that decision?

    Who’d have imagined that NASA MOON DATA might get lost? But it’s happened!

    I must imagine that the ancient technology used to encode those tapes could be replicated with a suitable scanning head and some of our flexible analog amplifiers / digitizers. Afterall, the data on the tape is likely some sort of FSK structure, and decoding the actual data back into a series of 1’s and 0’s should be pretty easy, once the geometry of the recorded “image” is replicated. After that, the data should have a structure that can be reverse engineered by a pimply-faced hacker in seconds.

    I’m curious as to what we’ll learn from those tapes!