Rescued Moon Photos Restored to Unprecedented Detail


Earlier this week we had a story about old data from the Apollo missions that could potentially be lost if an “antique” computer from the 1960’s can’t be renovated. But now comes good news about more old data which has actually been restored and enhanced to an exceedingly high quality. Some of the first ever close-up images of the lunar landscape have been given new life, rivaling the images being taken by today’s high definition cameras. NASA and some private space business leaders spent a quarter million dollars rescuing the historic photos from early NASA lunar robotic probes and restoring them in an abandoned McDonald’s. The first refurbished image was released Thursday, a 42-year old classic image of the moon with Earth rising in the background.

In 1966 and 1967, NASA sent five Lunar Orbiter missions to photograph the surface of the moon to prepare for the Apollo missions to land humans on the lunar surface. Data were recorded on large magnetic tapes and transferred to photographic film for scientific analysis. When these images were first retrieved from lunar orbit, only a portion of their true resolution was available because of the limited technology available. A special machine was needed to just to view the images.

Initially, the moon pictures were the hit of the 1960s. The photo released Thursday was the first of Earth from a great distance, until it was outdone by Apollo 8 astronauts, the first to orbit the moon. And a 1966 close-up of the moon was hailed by some media as the “picture of the century.”

After the Apollo missions, with all the images taken by the astronauts, the Lunar Orbiter images were essentially forgotten. The tapes with the images were put in storage. The specialized machines were offered free to anyone who would haul them away.

Nancy Evans, co-founder of the NASA Planetary Data System (PDS) took a couple machines in order to make sure the data taken by the Lunar Orbiters wasn’t lost. For a time in the 1980’s Evans worked on digitizing the images, but when funding dried up, the drives sat in a barn in Sun Valley, CA for the next several decades.

In 2007, Nancy Evans tried to find someone to take the drives. Dennis Wingo, a private space entrepreneur heard about this and contacted Keith Cowing from NASA Watch. Wingo and Cowing subsequently obtained the drives and tapes. 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, used in combination with today’s software.

Future images will be made publically available when they are fully processed and calibrated. The intent of this project is to facilitate, wherever possible, the broadest dissemination and public use of these images.

“This is an incredible image,” said Wingo. “In terms of raw resolution, there has been no mission that has flown since or even today that is as good.”

With one photo down, there are 1,983 more to go, if the machine holds up, Wingo said.

These photos will have some use, said Cowing. When NASA launches its the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in the spring, the space agency can compare detailed high-resolution images from 1966 to 2009 and see what changes occurred in 43 years, he said.

“What this gives you is literally before and after photos,” Cowing said. “This is like a time machine.”

For more information see NASA’s Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project and Here are some Apollo 13 pictures.

Sources: NASA Watch, AP, NASA

15 Replies to “Rescued Moon Photos Restored to Unprecedented Detail”

  1. It is great to see this type of history preserved. Lunar Orbiter was a critical step in the success of Apollo and preserving these pics is preserving a part of Mankind’s greatest adventure.

  2. So, which of the many links in this posting are the link to the photos of interest? Could these posting please have the main link actually link to the subject of main interest?

  3. @Rey

    Hi Rey,

    The camera technology back then simply consisted of two cameras onboard each Orbiter — a Medium Res and a High Res camera.

    Rather than go on about these, if you like, I have written some brief detail about these at my Moon site (see


  4. So, what technoloy were NASA using back in 1966 in the Lunar probes to catch those “high res” images? I assume CCD technology back then was primitive but I could be wrong. So what make them rival todays technology?

  5. @Dr Bubo, it’s pretty damn obvious that is not the shadow of the moon, it’s the terminator between the day and night on earth.
    You know that thing that happens every day…..doh!

  6. Rey,

    The high resolution is available because (summarising the information from John’s site) the probe system took 70mm photographs, developed them, then scanned the photographs and streamed the (probably analogue) scanning data straight back to NASA as it came from the instrument – there’d be no way to store the image data on board in electronic form.

    So the resolution is limited only by the grain size of the photographic emulsion (pretty small for good-quality 1960s monochrome film), and the resolution of the scanning system. The best image-scanning systems available at the time were ‘flying spot’ sensors using either an electron beam (as in the TV camera tubes of the period), or a laser, as in the first systems built by astronomers in the 1960s to scan and digitise images on glass plate photographs. The very first imaging CCDs were built in about 1969, and wouldn’t become competitive in this sort of application until the 1980s, at the earliest .

    The points to remember are that the image being scanned was large and high-resolution compared with the image formed in a TV camera, then or now, and since the image was a still, they could take all the time they wanted, within reason, to scan it at the highest possible resolution.

    The engineers who designed the system clearly wanted to capture all the data they possibly could, even though there was no way available (at the time, and within the budget) to reconstruct the images at full resolution.

  7. @Nick

    Nice one Nick…didn’t know about the “flying spot” stuff and other info you mention. I think (as I’m sure – given your knowledge on the subject is much more extensive) that the negative film was a fine-grained low contrast Kodak type, which meant that low graininess at HRes was assured. But I understand that not all went well with the developing stage, as bubbles on the negatives caused splotches/spots…etc., and sometimes the rollers for the film produced darkish bars across them. This, of course, led to parts of image data being lost in the end.

    The films onboard the Orbiters were scanned by Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) technology (each scan about 800 pixels), and when the data was received back in the lab (that is, was transmitted through the Deep Space Network to Earth), another CRT transformed the data into an image on 35-mm film. Together, the two CRT effects produced a final image on some with the “venetian blind effect”, as it was called (as mentioned above — the image looks like it has a series of lines and variation in brightness across it).

    John —

  8. I find it an interesting coincidence that this famous image of Earth from the Moon is being released just as India is about to land its first probe there.

    A little reminder of who got there first, perhaps?

  9. Good for India to get a spacecraft in orbit around the Moon.

    In terms of cosmological timeframes, 40 plus years isn’t too bad.

  10. John & Nick, thanks!

    I imagine the original negatives aboard the spacecraft would have a “better quality” as they are the originals 😀 .

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