It’s been a momentous couple of days in the history of Australian space exploration. Just yesterday, the newest antenna in NASA’s Deep Space Network was officially commissioned at our Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, five years to the day from its original ground breaking ceremony.
The new dish, Deep Space Station 35, incorporates the latest in Beam Waveguide technology: increasing its sensitivity and capacity for tracking, commanding and receiving data from spacecraft located billions of kilometres away across the Solar System.
The Canberra Complex is one of three Deep Space Network stations capable of providing two-way radio contact with robotic deep space missions. The Complex’s sister stations are located in California and Spain. Together, the three stations provide around-the-clock contact with over 35 spacecraft exploring the solar system and beyond. You may remember this technology being utilised recently for the Rosetta and Philae comet landing; and for communicating with the ever so far-flung New Horizons spacecraft on its journey past Pluto.
As a vital communication station for these types of missions, the new antenna will make deep space communication for spacecraft and their Earth-bound support staff even easier.
But don’t put away the space candles just yet. For today marks the 55 anniversary of the signing of the original space communication and tracking agreement signed between Australia and the United States, way back on the 26th February 1960.
It is a partnership that has that has led to many historic firsts and breakthrough discoveries – the first flybys of Mercury and Venus, the vital communication link and television coverage of the first Moonwalk, robotic rover landings on (and amazing views from) the surface of Mars, the first ‘close-ups’ of the giant outer planets and first-time encounters with worlds such as Pluto.
So, we say welcome to the newest addition to the Deep Space Network and happy birthday to our space-relationship with the US. Here’s to another fifty five years of success!
P.S. We couldn’t finish the blog without including this little gem:
By Lewis Ball, CSIRO
The future looks very bright for Australian radio astronomy but it was somewhat clouded earlier this year when CSIRO’s radio astronomy program took a dramatic hit in the Australian federal budget.
CSIRO has cut its funding for radio astronomy by 15%, down A$3.5 million to A$17 million for the 2014-15 financial year. The result will be a reduction of about 30 staff from the plan of just three months ago.
The cuts will impact most heavily on CSIRO’s in-house astronomy research, on the operation of the Parkes radio telescope – instantly recognisable from the movie The Dish – on the less well known but tremendously productive Australia Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri and on the Mopra Telescope near Coonabarabran, all in New South Wales.
About two-thirds of ATNF’s staffing reduction will be effected through not filling planned new roles, most prominent of which was to be a CSIRO “SKA Chief Scientist”. A third of the reduction will be through involuntary redundancies. Eight staff across sites in Sydney, Parkes, Narrabri and Geraldton have already been informed that their roles are expected to cease.
The speed of implementation of such a substantial funding reduction forces swift action. This has unsettled staff and the broader astronomy community, but it hasn’t changed the broad direction of CSIRO’s astronomy program.
World leaders in radio astronomy
Australian scientists and engineers are world leaders in radio astronomy, both in understanding our universe and in developing some of the most innovative technologies used to gain that understanding, and have been for 50 years.
CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF) has been integral to the discovery of the first double pulsar system (a long-sought holy grail of astronomy), the identification of a previously unknown arm of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and the invention of Wi-Fi now so embedded in everyday communications.
For the past decade CSIRO has been steadily changing the way it operates its radio astronomy facilities. CSIRO’s highest priority is the pursuit of science enabled by the development of an innovative new technology that provides an unprecedented wide field of view.
This uses “Phased Array Feeds” (PAFs) as multi-pixel radio cameras at the focus of dishes. PAFs are being deployed in the Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP), in Western Australia, which will be the fastest radio telescope in the world for surveying the sky.
ASKAP is in the early stages of commissioning. It is just now starting to demonstrate the new capabilities obtainable with a PAF-equipped array.
ASKAP is an outstanding telescope in its own right but is also a pathfinder to the huge Square Kilometre Array (SKA). This enormous project will build the world’s biggest astronomy observatory in Australia and southern Africa. It’s also the most expensive at a cost of around A$2.5 billion.
Cutbacks at The Dish
To resource these exciting developments, CSIRO has been reducing costs and staffing at its existing facilities, including the venerable Parkes Dish. This is a painful but necessary process. The most recent funding cuts will result in more pain.
Astronomers will no longer have the option of travelling to the Compact Array to operate the telescope to collect their data. They can run the telescope from CSIRO’s operations centre in Sydney, or from their own university, or from anywhere in the world via an internet connection.
Astronomers who use the Parkes telescope have been doing this for the past year after a very successful program to make the 50-year-old dish remotely operable. That is pretty amazing for a machine built before the advent of modern computers.
For many decades Parkes staff have swapped detector systems or “radio receivers” in and out of the focus cabin, the box at the tip of the tripod that sits about 64 metres off the ground. Each receiver operates at different wavelengths and offers quite different types of science.
It seems likely that CSIRO will offer just two Parkes receivers for at least the next six to 12 months, since it will no longer have the staff needed to swap receivers. Similar reductions in the capability of the Compact Array will also be needed to fit within the budget.
While the current changes are painful, the future is incredibly exciting. The direction of Australia’s astronomy is described in the Decadal Plan for Australian Astronomy for 2006–2015. It identifies participation in the SKA and access to the world’s largest optical telescopes as the two highest priorities for Australian astronomy.
We are making progress on both fronts, despite some significant challenges. The process to develop the plan for the next decade is well in hand under the stewardship of the National Committee for Astronomy.
Phased arrays are also at the heart of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), another innovative SKA precursor that has been in operation for a little over a year.
ASKAP and the MWA are located in the Murchison region of Western Australia, chosen because it has a tremendously low level of human activity and so astonishingly little background radio noise.
This radio quietness is the equivalent of the dark skies so important for optical astronomers. Less noise means astronomers are better able to detect and study the incredibly weak radio signals from the most distant parts of the universe.
This freedom from radio interference is a unique resource available only in remote parts of Australia and is essential for ASKAP, MWA and much of the science targeted by the SKA.
The wide fields of view of ASKAP and the MWA enable unprecedented studies of the entire radio sky. Astronomers will measure the radio emission of millions of galaxies and complete massive surveys that for the first time will connect radio astronomy to the more mature field of optical astronomy.
Mapping the sky with EMU and WALLABY
Both will survey millions of galaxies and together they will trace the formation and evolution of stars, galaxies and massive black holes to help us explore the large-scale structure of the universe.
The MWA is already producing great science targeted at the detection of intergalactic hydrogen gas during what’s known as the “epoch of reionisation” when the first stars in the universe began to shine.
With the SKA we aim to understand what the mysterious dark matter and dark energy are. We may also provide another spin-off such as the Wi-Fi technology, which came from CSIRO efforts to detect the evaporating black holes predicted by Stephen Hawking.
Advances in data-mining or processing techniques driven by the astonishing data rates that will be collected by the thousands of SKA antennas deployed across the Australian and African continents might provide the most fertile ground of all, illustrating once again the long-term benefits of investing in cutting-edge science.
Lewis Ball has received funding from the Australian Research Council. CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science receives funding from a variety of government sources, and from NASA/JPL.
At CSIRO, we’re part of a mission. But it’s not just any old mission. It’s a quest to hunt down elusive gravitational waves that may pinpoint the moment in time when a black hole is born.
The concept of a ‘black hole’ is one of the most curious in astrophysics. It’s a region of space-time where nothing, not even light, can escape. While there are countless studies that support the existence of this phenomenon, when it comes to actually proving black holes are real, all of the evidence is indirect.
Black holes are one of the more spectacular predictions of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Another is that space-time can be made to ripple, like the surface of a pond, when an event such as the birth of a black hole occurs. But the effects of such ripples – known as gravitational waves – are so tiny they have not yet been detected.
Leading the charge for gravitational wave detection is the Advanced Laser Interferometry Gravity-wave Observatory (LIGO) in the United States. LIGO has just installed a series of new ultra-high-performance mirrors that have been coated by our Precision Optics lab based in Sydney.
Because gravitational waves influence the movement of light photons as they bounce up and down between the coated optical mirrors, this new technology will give us our best chance yet of establishing the existence of black holes and other cosmic phenomena.
While LIGO has the potential to take us a big step forward in recording gravitational waves, many challenges are still to be tackled. Its detectors are incredibly delicate and difficult to operate continuously at optimum performance. At the same time they are producing massive amounts of data that must be sifted for very tiny signals.
The good news is that Australia is poised to play a major role in tackling these challenges. It was announced this week that a home-grown project will create new facilities to support LIGO in Australia. These include a new detector test bed (built in a partnership between the universities of Western Australia, Adelaide, the Australian National University and CSIRO’s Precision Optics lab) as well as a major upgrade to the iVEC supercomputer in WA that will allow Australian researchers to participate in the exciting hunt for cosmic signals.
It’s hoped that this boost in power will fast track the identification of gravitational waves, and in doing so help physicists solve one of space’s most confounding mysteries. Ultimately, this may give us a better understanding of the origins of this amazing Universe in which we live.
Read more about our work in high-precision optics for astronomy.
Australian scientists have designed a first-of-a-kind optical filter that will allow astronomers to capture some of the most detailed images of the sun that have ever been seen.
Developed by CSIRO, the filters will get up close and personal with our nearest star like never before when they blast off aboard the European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter satellite in 2017.
Orbiting the sun at distances similar to Mercury, the Solar Orbiter will travel closer to the Sun than any previous spacecraft. The mission will be the first to provide detailed views of the star’s Polar Regions and inner heliosphere – the uncharted innermost region of our Solar System.
CSIRO optics research leader Dr David Farrant says the optical filters were designed to be extremely accurate, allowing the satellite’s instrumentation to take measurements centred to within 1/30th of a nanometre. That’s just a tiny fraction of the width of a human hair.
“Having manufactured several of these filters over the past two years, we have just shipped the final one off to the Max Planck Institute where it will be assembled and tested with the rest of the satellite’s sophisticated equipment.
“Our optics lab is the only place in the world where filters of this kind can be made to such precise specifications. Even then we had to develop a series of new techniques, precision lasers and even a new testing chamber, just to make this work.”
Dr Farrant says that the images the Solar Orbiter collects will offer unprecedented detail of the sun’s magnetic and seismic activity.
“This incredible detail will provide new insights into sunspot activity, which will help in the prediction of solar winds and geomagnetic storms. This will improve the accuracy of climate models here on Earth, providing significant scientific, social and economic benefits.”
“The filters have to be extremely robust to survive the Orbiter’s 10 year mission in space. We had to design them to withstand the forceful vibration of the spacecraft’s launch as well as the ongoing intense heat and high energy radiation from the sun.”
As a precursor to the Solar Orbiter mission, in 2006 the CSIRO team developed a series of devices for the IMaX consortium, for a balloon-borne solar observation mission travelling over the Arctic. This allowed them to understand how this type of instrumentation responds to extreme conditions, helping them adjust their specifications accordingly.
Dr Farrant says he is extremely excited to see the hard work of his team head into outer space.
“We’ve developed high precision optics for some of the world’s most sophisticated observatories, but this will be the first time we actually send our research out into the solar system. It’s a tremendous achievement.”
Media contact: Crystal Ladiges +61 3 9545 2982 or 0477 336 854
Where does our Galaxy get the fuel to keep forming stars? The answer may lie in thousands of gas clouds flying around the outskirts of our Galaxy.
Originally posted on Universe @ CSIRO:
“Food pills” were a staple of science fiction for decades. For our Galaxy, they may be real.
The Galaxy has been making stars for the last 8 billion years. What’s kept it going all that time?
When old stars die, some of their gas goes back into the galactic “soup” for star making. But in the long run a lot of it gets locked up in long-lived dwarf stars.
So the Galaxy needs fresh supplies of gas.
Astronomer think that gas rains in from, probably in the form of “clouds”, and that this fuels the star-making.
But there’s a problem.
If a regular gas cloud were to hit the warm outer parts of the Galaxy — the halo — the gas would dissipate, and not reach the Galaxy’s starry disk where the party is going on.
Something must hold the gas clouds together on their way to the…
View original 229 more words
By John Sarkissian
About the author
John is an Operations Scientist at the CSIRO Parkes Radio Observatory. His main responsibilities are operations and systems development, and the support of visiting astronomers with their observations. John is a member of the Parkes Pulsar Timing Array team that is endeavouring to use precision pulsar timing to make the first direct detection of gravitational waves. In 1998–99 he acted as a technical advisor for the film The Dish. John has received two NASA Group Achievement Awards and, in 2010, received an official NASA commendation for his search for the missing Apollo 11 tapes.
UPDATE: They have found the engines. How hard can it be to find some video tapes!
It was one giant leap for mankind and it was taken at 12:56 PM (AEST) on 21 July 1969. Six hundred million people, one sixth of mankind at the time, witnessed the Apollo 11 moonwalk live on television.
As a six-year-old school boy, I was one of those millions. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the school assembly room with my fellow first graders, we watched the events unfold on a small black and white television screen perched at the front of the assembly room. We were spellbound by the dark, fuzzy images flickering on the screen. How did they do it? How did those pictures get from the Moon to my Sydney school? Why were the pictures so dark and ghostly looking?
Little did I know then, but three decades later I would find myself working at the CSIRO Parkes Observatory, at the very place those images were received and that I would have the opportunity to answer those childhood questions. This article is a personal account of my research into the Parkes support of Apollo 11 and how it eventually morphed into a search for the missing Apollo 11 tapes. It’s been a roller-coaster ride, with many highs and lows plus a few twists and turns to make it interesting. Along the way, I’ve met many fine and dedicated people, some of whom are now close friends. This is our story.
At 12:54 PM (AEST) Buzz Aldrin switched on the lunar module camera that would transmit the TV pictures of Armstrong descending the lunar module ladder. Three tracking stations received the signals simultaneously. They were the 64-metre Goldstone antenna in California, the 26-metre antenna at Honeysuckle Creek near Canberra and the CSIRO 64-metre dish at Parkes. The signals were relayed to Houston, where a controller selected what he thought were the best pictures for release to the US television networks and distribution to a worldwide audience.
In the first few minutes of the broadcast, Houston alternated between its two stations at Goldstone and Honeysuckle Creek, searching for the best quality pictures. When they finally switched to Parkes, the pictures were so much better that they stayed with Parkes for the remainder of the 2½ hour moonwalk. From an analysis of the videotapes of the Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) and of a recording of the NASA NET 2 communications loop (which controlled the TV reception), the timings for the TV switches are shown below.
Time (mm:ss) Video Transmission
00:00 TV on (upside down) Picture is from Goldstone (GDS). Time is 02:54:00 (GMT)
00:27 Picture is inverted and is now the right way up. Very dark, high contrast image
01:39 Houston TV switches to Honeysuckle Creek (HSK)
02:20 Armstrong steps onto the Moon. The time is 02:56:20 (GMT)
04:42 Houston TV switches back to GDS. Picture is negative
05:36 Houston TV switches back to HSK
06:49 Houston TV switched back to GDS. Picture is positive again but still dark
08:51 Houston TV switches to Parkes (PKS). Remains with Parkes for the remainder of the 2½ hour lunar EVA
From these timings, and other evidence, it is clear that at the start of the EVA, Goldstone was experiencing problems with its TV, resulting in high contrast, dark images. The Honeysuckle Creek pictures were better but they suffered from a lower signal- to-noise ratio, thus resulting in grainier images. The pictures from Parkes were the best of the three and it was these that NASA broadcast for the majority of the lunar EVA.
Television from the Moon
The Apollo Lunar Surface Camera was developed by Westinghouse and was a technological marvel of its time. The lunar module was power and bandwidth limited, so it was not possible to transmit commercial standard TV directly from the Moon. Instead, a slow-scan TV (SSTV) system was used that required less power and bandwidth. The SSTV system transmitted b/w pictures at 10 frames-per-second with only 320 lines-per-frame. In order to broadcast this to the watching world, it had to be scan-converted on Earth to commercial TV standards. An RCA scan-converter was used that operated on an optical conversion principle. It was a simple system that worked well on previous Apollo missions. Essentially, as each single SSTV frame was received on Earth, it was displayed on a small 10-inch b/w slowscan monitor. A Vidicon camera was pointed at the screen and imaged the frame at the standard commercial TV frame rate. It was the output of this camera that was broadcast to the world. In this way, a 30 frames-per-second, 525 lines-per-frame, TV picture was achieved. As you can imagine, it’s not an ideal method of scan-converting the pictures but it seemed adequate at the time.
The Goldstone TV was scan-converted on site and relayed directly to Houston via microwave relays and landline. The Honeysuckle Creek TV was scan-converted on site also, and relayed to the Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC) Paddington terminal in Sydney, referred to as ‘Sydney Video’. Meanwhile, the Parkes baseband signals were relayed to Sydney Video, where the TV was separated from the telemetry stream and scan-converted there.
At Sydney Video, a NASA controller would select the best of the Honeysuckle Creek or Parkes pictures, and pass that selection on to Houston. His selection would simultaneously be recorded on to 2-inch videotape on an Ampex VR660 recorder. The selected TV would be sent via microwave relays to the Moree Earth Station in northern NSW, then via the Intelsat III geostationary satellite to the United States and then finally along the AT&T landlines to Houston. At Houston, the controller would select the best of the Goldstone or Australian feeds for worldwide distribution. In a further twist, the Australian selection at Paddington was split and sent to the ABC Gore Hill studios for distribution to Australian networks. Consequently, the Australian TV did not have to travel via satellite to the US and back again. This meant that a transmission delay was not present, so Australian audiences watched the moonwalk 300 milliseconds before the rest of the world!
It is clear that scan-converting the SSTV and relaying it to the world was not an ideal situation. Firstly, the picture being displayed on the scan-converter monitor had to be adjusted manually. This was a subjective exercise, as the scan-converter operator had to adjust the brightness and contrast settings to what he thought produced the best looking picture. Unfortunately, the operator at Goldstone was inexperienced, and with the pressure of the moment, he got it wrong. At Sydney Video, the operator, Elmer Fredd, was vastly more experienced. He had helped design the scan-converter and knew it well. In December 1968, he had converted the TV pictures from Apollo 8 at Goldstone. It was no accident therefore, that the Parkes pictures looked the best. In addition, the slow-scan monitors in the scan-converters used high persistence phosphor screens so that the pictures could persist long enough for the Vidicon camera to image them. Unfortunately, a side effect of this was that the images, especially of bright, moving objects (like astronauts), persisted between frames, resulting in the ghosting of the images. Another problem was that the scan-conversion process, introduced additional signal noise and a lower resolution picture.
To make matters worse, relaying the signals via microwave relays, landlines and geostationary satellite added even more signal noise and transmission errors. The result of all these systematic problems was that the TV that the world saw was severely degraded and compromised. We could do much better today. As the video and telemetry downlink was being received at the stations, it was recorded onto 1-inch magnetic data tapes at a rate of 120 inches-per-second. These tapes had to be changed every 15 minutes for the entire duration of the moonwalk. Clearly, if we could find these tapes, we could replay them and recover the original SSTV pictures. With modern image processing techniques, we could enhance them even further and release them to the public.
The tape search begins
Soon after arriving at Parkes in 1996, I learned of a minor controversy about the exact time that the first TV from the Moon was received at Parkes. The Director of the Parkes Observatory at the time, John Bolton, had always insisted that he had received the TV signal from the very beginning when the camera was switched on at 12:54 PM (AEST).
The Moon was not scheduled to come into view at Parkes until 1:02 PM – a full eight minutes later, so there was some doubt. However, I soon learnt that there were two feeds installed in the focus cabin on the day. Realising that the moonwalk was imminent, Bolton was able to receive the signals with the less sensitive off-axis receiver. He carefully aligned the off-axis beam on the Moon and was able to track it until it reached the telescope’s 30-degree elevation horizon at 1:02 PM, after which he could track it normally with the main beam. My calculations showed that this was indeed possible, but I wanted to know for certain. Also, the signal being received by the off-axis feed would have been unstable and probably of a much lower quality, so I wanted to know by how much. I thought that if I could find the original data tapes that contained the signals recorded at Parkes, I could replay them and confirm my conclusions. At this time also, there was still some doubt about the sequence of switches in the broadcast of the TV, so by finding the tapes from the other stations, I could compare their picture quality with the existing video recordings and determine the sequence for certain. A bonus was that we could also recover the original SSTV, which I knew by then was of a much higher quality.
Beginning in the late 1990s I contacted various NASA centres requesting the whereabouts of the data tape recordings. I made countless phone calls, wrote emails and letters to whomever I thought might know where the tapes were located. But, it was all to no avail. No one seemed to know where the tapes were. In fact, many had trouble understanding what exactly I was after. I was convinced that the tapes must still exist somewhere, but where? In 2001 I obtained a Polaroid picture taken directly off a slow-scan monitor at Sydney Video. When compared to the existing scan-converted video image of the same scene, it clearly showed how much better the original SSTV was to the scan-converted videos. So, I persisted.
Also in 2001, the film The Dish premiered in the US and this prompted several past and present NASA personnel to contact me. Three in particular became good friends and search team members. Stan Lebar was the retired Westinghouse engineer who, in 1969, was the program manager for the Apollo Lunar Surface Camera. Dick Nafzger was the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) engineer responsible for all ground systems hardware in support of Apollo TV in 1969, and was still with NASA. Bill Wood was a retired communications engineer who was based at Goldstone in 1969. The search team was completed when, in 2002, I was contacted by Colin Mackellar, who is an amateur historian and the webmaster of the Honeysuckle Creek website. He is a trained geologist and an Anglican minister in Sydney. Together, we joined forces to search for, and recover, the SSTV recordings.
A breakthrough occurred in 2002 when a former technician from Honeysuckle Creek contacted his former colleagues and Colin Mackellar. He admitted that, in 1969, he had made an unauthorised copy of a data tape that he believed contained telemetry from the Apollo 11 lunar EVA. This caused great excitement. The tape had been stored in his garage for 33 years in less than ideal conditions. If it still contained data, the possibility existed that the SSTV could be recovered from it.
Former Honeysuckle Creek personnel, Mike Dinn and John Saxon organised to have the tape transported to the Data Evaluation Lab (DEL) at the GSFC by the NASA representative in Australia, Neal Newman. The DEL contained the only machines in the world that could play and decode the Apollo data tapes. At the DEL, Dick Nafzger replayed the tape with his team. Unfortunately, they discovered that the tape only contained data from a 1967 simulation. The technician had copied the wrong tape. As heartbreaking as this was, it had a positive effect. People suddenly understood what we were after and why we were looking for it. We confirmed that the equipment to replay the data tapes still existed and, most importantly, that even after 34 years the tapes could still retain data.
In 2005, spurred on by this and by new Polaroids from Honeysuckle Creek, Stan and Dick visited the US National Archives in Washington, where all the data tapes from the Apollo era were deposited in the early 1970s – all 250,000 plus tapes. Unfortunately, their search only uncovered a single box of tapes containing Apollo 9 telemetry. The label on the box had details that allowed us to continue the search. Soon after this discovery, we received the alarming news that the DEL was slated for closure in 2006. This would be a disaster because, without the DEL, there would be no way to replay the tapes, and recover the SSTV, if they were ever found. Something had to be done.
The formal search
In February 2006 I visited the DEL and also gave a series of talks at various NASA centres to explain our search. On my return, I compiled a report which slowly began to stir people’s attention. Two months later in July, Stan and Dick were interviewed on national radio on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission.
Finally in early August, The Sydney Morning Herald posted a front-page story with the provocative headline ‘One giant blunder for mankind: how NASA lost moon pictures’. This caused a major stir with the story going viral on the internet and news reports appearing on the American TV networks and other news organisations worldwide. Interest became so intense that in August 2006 the NASA Administrator, Michael Griffin, formalised the search and appointed the GSFC deputy director, Dorothy Perkins, to head the search. Dick was the technical lead. The first decision made was to not close the DEL.
With the full resources of NASA brought to bear on our search, we were confident that we would now finally locate the tapes and release the SSTV to the public by Christmas. But it was not to be. Soon after the formal search began, documents were found that suggested that the tapes may have been erased in the early 1980s. This was disturbing news. We were searching for just 45 tapes from over 250,000 tapes of the Apollo era. Surely, these few would have been put aside for historical reasons. Meanwhile, Colin and I followed up leads from the Australian end and provided advice. In the US, our colleagues Stan, Dick and Bill became first-class sleuths. They tracked down long retired personnel and uncovered dusty documents from NASA archives, people’s attics and basements.
Slowly and surely, the evidence mounted. We discovered that in the late 1970s and early 1980s NASA had withdrawn all the Apollo era data tapes from the National Archives and erased and recertified them for later use. But why? Apparently, these tapes were manufactured using whale oil to adhere the oxide to the backing. However, in the mid-1970s, the use of whale oil was banned and manufacturers switched to using synthetic oils. The drawback was that if the synthetic oil-based tapes were not stored correctly, they would absorb moisture from the air which made them sticky. Played back at high speed, they would stick to the recording heads and be shredded to pieces. The older Apollo era tapes didn’t suffer from this drawback.
As NASA’s budget was cut back severely in the late 1970s, the need for more tapes to record the increasing volume of data from satellite programs became acute. The enormous number of tapes in the National Archives was now seen as valuable assets. Over a period of several years, they were all removed, erased and recertified. The labels on the tape canisters were cryptic and there was little way of knowing what each of the tapes contained. Our team didn’t find any evidence that the tapes containing the Apollo 11 lunar EVA data were treated differently to the others. We reluctantly concluded that the tapes were, in all likelihood, erased and reused with the rest.
You can imagine how we felt. To understand why the tapes were treated this way, it’s important to realise that they were never intended to be the primary archival media. In fact, there was never any expectation that the magnetic data would survive more than a few decades. They were only meant to act as backups for the real-time communications relays and other data. If there was a failure during a mission, the tapes could be used to recover the information. If however, all went well, then the tapes were no longer necessary. All the vital information was extracted in real-time and archived for analysis at the relevant NASA centres. The TV was successfully seen by the world and the scan-converted video was properly recorded onto archival b/w film that would last for centuries. Few people outside of the tracking stations were even aware of the SSTV or how much better it was. As far as everyone was concerned, all the data was believed to be properly archived – at least until we came along.
The NASA report HERE
What to do next? In late 2006 Colin noticed a video clip on Eric Jones’ Apollo Lunar Surface Journal website. It showed Armstrong descending the lunar module ladder that was much clearer than anything we’d seen before. We learnt that the clip was sourced from someone who had previously worked at the GSFC. It appears that he found an old 2-inch videotape of the lunar EVA and made a crude VHS video copy of it. We obtained a copy of this videotape and found that it was most likely a copy of the video recording made at Sydney Video of the Australian selection.
It contained the clearest pictures of Armstrong descending the ladder sourced from Honeysuckle. It also showed the switch to Parkes earlier than in any other known recording. Unfortunately, when the original copy was made, the Ampex recorder was not setup properly and this produced a jittery image with many defects. We spent the next few months searching for the original 2-inch tape, but it has mysteriously gone missing. Early in the search Colin was contacted by Ed von Renouard, the former scan-converter operator from Honeysuckle. On the day of the lunar EVA, Ed had brought his home movie camera to work and recorded footage directly off the screens of his console. One of those scenes was the dumping of the astronauts’ portable life support systems, or backpacks. This occurred several hours after the astronauts had re-entered the lunar module and the TV networks had by then ended their broadcasts. Consequently, as far as we could determine, no other footage existed of the dumping. During the search, we came across many archived copies of the scan-converted TV. We decided to switch our search to finding the best of these scan-converted videos and have them archived properly. We also decided to digitise them along with the Sydney Video and Honeysuckle footage. We would take the best parts of each and compile and restore them into a single video of the lunar EVA.
In 2008 we had a demo restoration produced of selected scenes, which we used to convince NASA to underwrite the $245,000 cost of the full restoration. A week later, Neil Armstrong visited Sydney to address the CPA Australia 125th anniversary celebrations. During his address, Neil Armstrong paid a glowing tribute to the many Australians who worked at the tracking stations and helped to ensure the success of the Apollo 11 mission. Some were present in the audience and were individually acknowledged by him. In a brief ceremony following the event, Armstrong symbolically handed over the Australian disks to Dr Phil Diamond, the then-Director of CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science (CASS) – the custodian of the disks in Australia. He noted that ‘”the restored video is a valuable contribution to space exploration and space communication history”.
This ceremony effectively brought the restoration effort to a close. The Australian disks will eventually be deposited in permanent archival storage, most likely with the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra. The restored Apollo 11 video can now be purchased online from www.apollo11video.com
The proceeds will go toward the continued search and restoration of the other Apollo mission videos.
In early September 2006, soon after we first received news that the tapes may have been erased, I received a phone call from Peter Robertson, the editor of Australian Physics magazine. He had seen the news items regarding the missing Apollo 11 tapes. He phoned to tell me of a letter he had received from John Bolton in the early 1990s. Bolton had mentioned some videotape players that were in the Parkes control room during the Apollo 11 mission. I informed Peter, that we weren’t looking for videotapes but rather magnetic data tapes containing telemetry of the mission. I asked him to send me a copy of the letter anyway.
For many years, I had photographs from the CASS Photo Archive of scenes taken inside the Parkes control room during Apollo 11. Several photos showed a man standing beside Ampex VR660 2-inch videotape players. The Ampex players could only record standard television pictures, so I had no idea what they were doing at Parkes. I also didn’t know who the man standing beside them was, or what he was doing there.
A few days after Peter phoned, the Bolton letter arrived and I was stunned. The letter did indeed describe the Ampex video recorders and, more importantly, Bolton mentioned that they came with their own engineer from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Could this engineer be the mystery man? I knew that Johns Hopkins was the home of the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), a regular NASA contractor.
In late November 2006, we received definitive evidence that the tapes had been erased. It was then that I sent the information on the possible identity of the engineer to my US colleagues. They immediately set out to find him. Within a few weeks, they found old newsletters from APL that positively identified him. He was contacted and interviewed by Bill and Stan. What he told them lifted our spirits. According to the engineer, in April 1969, the APL was contracted by the GSFC to modify existing Ampex VR660 video recorders to record the non-standard SSTV at Parkes. He was put in charge of this crash program. It was to be an experimental backup recording in case the TV could not be relayed to Houston. This secondary recording was only made at Parkes and if it worked, it could be used on future missions. He reported that the recording succeeded and that he returned to the US with two reels of 2-inch videotape containing the SSTV.
The whereabouts of this videotape was now a mystery. An extensive search was conducted at APL that turned up two tapes that seemed to match the description. Dick organised the loan of an Ampex VR660 video player and a slow-scan monitor from two museums. His team played back the tapes at DEL and found that they were all blank. Again, we were disappointed. Importantly, there was no documentation to suggest the tapes were erased or destroyed. We are working on the assumption that they still exist somewhere, so our search for them continues.
The most striking thing for me was how, just as we were at our lowest ebb, John Bolton appeared, from beyond the grave, to direct us in our search. It was like he was saying, “Hey, look over there. That’s where you’ll find what you’re looking for.” Hope remains.
More information on the Parkes Apollo 11 support and the search for the tapes can be found here:
This is the official NASA search report release in 2009:
This is the page setup in 2009 to publicise the Parkes Apollo 11 40th Anniversary:
This is the site for purchasing the Apollo 11 restored video DVD:
I wish to express my gratitude to Professor Marcus Price, officer-in-charge of the Parkes Observatory in 1997, for asking me to research the Observatory’s support of the Apollo 11 mission, and to Dr John Reynolds, officer-in-charge from 1999–2008, for his continued support throughout. I also thank Marshall Cloyd for giving me the opportunity to search for the tapes a little closer to the source in the United States. Finally, to my friends Bill, Dick, Colin and Stan – thank you.
No doubt we’ve all seen stunning images of the planet we call home and thought ‘wow’. Orbiting earth at any one time are thousands of satellites. They may help in many different ways from helping your daughter call you from her holiday in Paris to assisting helicopter pilots communicate with each other.
Some satellites are up there to help us observe our earth. Our scientists are very fond of these satellites and are known to recount stories of what they were doing when a particular satellite was launched.
On 11 February 2013 (USA time), a satellite called Landsat 8 is being launched from California by NASA. This satellite is the eighth in a satellite legacy of more than 40 years observing and measuring the earth’s surface . If you want to find out more about what happened to earlier Landsat satellites (including the launch of number 1 in 1972 and the crash of 6 into the Pacific Ocean) then check out NASA’s website.
Landsat satellites provide unobstructed views of the earth giving us valuable information for monitoring land and coastal environments, forest monitoring, disaster impact assessments, water resources, and environmental health of a wide range of ecosystems.
Peter Caccetta, a research scientist based in Perth, has been working with Landsat data at CSIRO for more than 20 years. He began working with Landsat to monitor agricultural and forested areas.
“I wasn’t even old enough to go to school when the first Landsat satellite went up but thanks to the vision of US scientists in the 1960s, we have images of our earth over more than 40 years,” he said.
“Landsat data provided the first view of the landscape from space at a resolution relevant for those interested in property scale changes but also useful over very large geographic areas, for example the Australian continent.
“Landsat images provided the first view from space for farmers to see variation within their properties and how their farm sat within the broader catchments.
“We have a unique historical record of digital images of the Australian continent,” he said.
Landsat data has been applied across many environmental monitoring applications around the world (see the fantastic images of ‘fields of green’ in Saudi Arabia desert below) and has been used extensively by our scientists for studies where current and historical knowledge of the earth’s surface is required. For example, comparing an event we observe today to what has happened in the past.
One area of particular interest for CSIRO continues to be carbon accounting and the ongoing work to share lessons from Australia’s National Carbon Accounting System (NCAS) with other countries, for example with Indonesia through the Indonesia-Australia Forest Carbon Partnership.
Peter Caccetta was part of the Eureka Prize winning team (including people from the Department of Climate Change, Energy Efficiency, the Australian National University and many others) that developed the world-leading NCAS. This system is one of only a few operating in the world.
Australia’s NCAS currently uses data from Landsat satellites 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7 to estimate changes in the continent’s vegetation cover. These results are then combined with other sources of information and computer simulations to produce estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from different land management activities. With the launch of Landsat 8, this will help maintain the continuity and accuracy of our carbon accounting systems.
Sharing Peter’s enthusiasm for the launch of Landsat is Inge Jonckheere from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Inge works on the UN-REDD Programme, the UN answer to Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change helping countries implement their national forest monitoring programs to get them ready to participate in REDD.
“We are very excited by the launch of Landsat 8 because it will provide continuous, easily available, openly accessible data to developing countries,” said Inge.
“This means it’s all freely available for developing countries and they do not need to depend on particular software or hardware,” she said.
With Australia signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, a key push for the Australian Government and indeed CSIRO’s research is to have consistent forest information and monitoring across the country so that we can measure and understand changes and emissions, and support carbon reporting activities around the world.
So really, the launch of another satellite may not seem like a big deal but the launch of Landsat 8 is a huge deal for thousands of scientists and indeed policy makers around the world waiting, with all fingers and toes crossed, to get new pictures of the world.