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Technoarchaeology: Nimbus and LOIRP

NASA Solicitation: Retrieval of Nimbus Observational Data

"NASA/GSFC intends to purchase the items from HOV Services, LLC. Two types of high-end photo scanners are required to scan Nimbus film data: the first must be equivalent to the Leica air photo scanners used to scan NASA's Heat Capacity mapping Mission frames for the CDMP. Nimbus film was processed on similar devices as HCMM film. The Second is a film scanner normally used for scanning medical X-rays. This type of device is needed to digitize the longer (i.e., 21") film scenes at 600 dpi. This film is similar to the old B&W satellite film from Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. The facilities need to be located within 50 miles of the NASA's film archive at GSFC and WNRC. This allows for Government inspection of the scanning and indexing process and ensures the per-image shipping costs are at a minimum with respect to the per-image scanning costs. HOV Services has unique experience in configuring both scanners needed for NASA-type film archives, scanning and indexing all of the NASA film from HCMM mission as part of the NOAA Climate Data Modernization Program (CDMP). NOAA CDMP has partnered with HOV Services since 1999 to digitize and index Defense Meteorological Satellite film records that are from the same era as the Nimbus Film records."

- Nimbus II and Lunar Orbiter 1 Imagery: A New Look at Earth in 1966
- National Snow and Ice Data Center on LOIRP
- LOIRP Aids In Finding Google Earth Images from 1966
- Dumpster Diving for Science

Dumpster Diving for Science

NASA Dives Into Its Past to Retrieve Vintage Satellite Data, Science (subscription)

"Last month, researchers working out of an abandoned McDonald's restaurant on the grounds of NASA Ames Research Center recovered data collected by NASA's Nimbus II satellite on 23 September 1966. The satellite soared over Earth in a polar orbit every 108 minutes, taking pictures of cloud cover and measuring heat radiated from the planet's surface, and creating a photo mosaic of the globe 43 years ago. The resulting image is the oldest and most detailed from NASA's Earth-observing satellites. It's also the latest success story in what researchers call techno-archaeology: pulling data from archaic storage systems. Once forgotten and largely unreadable with modern equipment, old data tapes are providing researchers with new information on changes in the surfaces of Earth and the moon..."

... The LOIRP team obtained $750,000 from NASA and private enterprise and enlisted the assistance of a retired Ampex engineer. They cleaned, rebuilt, and reassembled one drive, then designed and built equipment to convert the analog signals into an exact 16-bit digital copy. "It was like dumpster diving for science," says Cowing, co-team leader at LOIRP. In November 2008, the team recovered their first image: a famous picture of an earthrise taken by Lunar Orbiter 1 on 23 August 1966. The team's new high-resolution version was so crisp and clear that it revealed many previously obscured details, such as a fog bank lying along the coast of Chile. "We thought if the Earth's surface looks that good a quarter of a million miles away, what does the moon's surface look like 100 miles beneath it?" says Cowing."

Click on image to enlarge

On 23 August 1966, the Lunar Orbiter 1 spacecraft took a photo of the Earth as seen from lunar orbit. This image, albeit grainy, quickly became an icon of the Space Age. This "earthrise" photo, while spectacular at the time, was never retrieved and processed to the full level of detail contained in the image. This was due in great part of the available technology at the time. Computer image processing was in its infancy.

Forty two years later, the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) managed to retrieve the image from original data tapes using restored tape drives from the 1960s. In so doing the level of detail present in the image was unparalleled. Subsequently, other images have been retrieved with the ultimate goal of obtaining all of the images returned by the five Lunar Orbiters.

One of the striking aspects of this newly enhanced image is the amount of detail that can be seen on Earth at a resolution of perhaps 1 km/pixel taken from a quarter of a million miles away. Among the details visible is the extent of the southern polar ice cap.

The LOIRP required a lot of what has come to be called "techoarchaeology" that is, going back in time to the original data and recording devices, using modern enhancements. The expertise gained by the LOIRP team eventually caught the attention of the folks at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

Data from the Nimbus weather and earth observation satellite - in orbit at the same time as the Lunar Orbiters were circling the Moon - had languished for years in the national archives until John Moses NASA Goddard Space Flight Center had them digitized.  

Dr. Walt Meir of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, after seeing the work that the LOIRP team had done in potentially identifying the Antarctic sea ice in the Lunar Orbiter 1 Earthrise image, and recognizing the similarity between the raw data of the Nimbus and Lunar Orbiter data, provided a grant to the LOIRP team to process the Nimbus data into a modern format and to correct image artifacts that are common to both types of images.  

The LOIRP team accomplished this, and rendered the images into the Google Earth format using a variety of internally developed techniques and elements of the NASA Ames developed NASA World Wind Java software development kit.

To date some of the images taken by Nimbus II have been enhanced and mapped into Google Earth. One date in particular was of interest to the LOIRP - 23 August 1966. As the images were enhanced and dropped into Google Earth it became clear that we have imagery that overlapped in time to show the weather on that late August day as evening crept up on Africa and Europe.

In New York City, just over the Earth's limb as seen from lunar orbit, the Beatles were preparing to play at Shea Stadium ...

You can download a KMZ file of these images here for viewing in Google Earth.

Related Links

- Techno-Archaeology Rescues Climate Data from Early Satellites
- LOIRP Aids In Finding Google Earth Images from 1966
- Newly Restored Lunar Orbiter Image of Earth and Moon (Detail)

The original Lunar Orbiter 1 image of Earth on 23 August 1966 (click on image to enlarge)

Nimbus II imagery of Earth on 23 August 1966 (click on image to enlarge)

Overlap of Nimbus II imagery onto Lunar Orbiter 1 imagery (click on image to enlarge)

National Snow and Ice Data Center on LOIRP

Techno-Archaeology Rescues Climate Data from Early Satellites, National Snow and Ice Data Center

Image: Forty-three years after the Nimbus II satellite collected these data, a team from NSIDC and NASA recovered a global image from September 23, 1966. In this view over Antarctica, overlaid on Google Earth, the Ross Ice Shelf appears clearly at left.

"Starting with the methods developed for the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) at NASA Ames Research Park, a team at NSIDC worked with Dennis Wingo at LOIRP to search NASA archives for the original Nimbus tapes containing raw images and calibrations. Their first goal was to read and reprocess the data at a higher resolution, removing errors resulting from the limits of the original processing."

LOIRP Aids In Finding Google Earth Images from 1966

Technoarcheology and Earth Sciences, the Recovery of Nimbus II High Resolution Infrared Radiometer Data

Nimbus II + Typhoon Tracks Overlaid on Google Earth KML Format

Dennis Wingo and Keith Cowing: In 2008 the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) began a NASA ESMD sponsored project to resurrect 43+ year old Ampex FR-900 instrumentation tape drives for the purpose of recovering, before the capability to do so becomes impossible, the last surviving master tapes from the five Lunar Orbiter spaceraft that orbited the Moon in support of Apollo in 1966-67. Our project is proceeding on our task to do so.

During our research on the Ampex tape drives we scoured the NASA Technical Reports Server ( as well as any other source we could get our hands on. During this search, we found, through a Cadillac (yes the car) user group, a gentleman from Alaska who had worked on these drives during the 1960's. We were able to connect and while he had retired and the units were long gone to that great scrap yard in the sky, he told me something interesting. He said that during his time working on the drives that they had sent "miles and miles, thousands of tapes" to NASA during the Nimbus weather satellite program. This is where our new tale begins.

The Search for the Tapes and a New Direction

The LOIRP team knew from our documentation that all of our master tapes had once been in the possession of the federal records center in Suitland, MD. Also, a result of our investigation about the Nimbus II tapes (contemporaneous with Lunar Orbiter), we gained a small grant from CIRES, a cooperative institute of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to apply some of our LOIRP techniques for image correction to some third generation data that was recovered by John Moses, (EOSDIS Science Operations) at GSFC in 2007. Dr. Walt Meir is the NSIDC Principal Investigator (PI) on the project. The third generation Nimbus II tapes were tapes that had been processed and calibrated on old IBM 360 class mainframes. One of our tasks was also to attempt to find the original 2" master tapes.

In 2009 Keith Cowing and I went to the federal records center in SUitland, Maryland, along with Dick Nafzger from NASA GSFC to determine whether or not there were any 2" FR-900 tapes that could have possibly recorded the slow scan video from the Apollo 11 mission. In addition we were looking for any 2" tapes from Nimbus that could be played that would be of higher fidelity than the third generation tapes.

Lamentably, it seems that the Nimbus II and III tapes that were 2" were more than likely recycled at the same time as the Apollo 11 slow scan tapes. One thing that we have found in the documentation is that there were multiple copies of second generation tapes made and sent around the nation to various researchers. There is a possibility that some of these tapes still exist and if any reader of this knows of them, please contact us through NASA Watch.

Nimbus in Historical Context

In the 1960's coincident with the Apollo program, NASA began a series of experimental weather and climate monitoring spacecraft. Both visible light and infrared instruments were placed on the spacecraft, which was launched into an 1100 km near circular polar orbit. Nimbus I was launched on August 28, 1964. A failure of the Agena upper stage left the spacecraft in an elliptical orbit that was still usable for science. The spacecraft failed on September 22nd 1964 when the solar panels became locked. It is interesting in this era of long lived NASA spacecraft that none of the early Nimbus spacecraft operated for very long. Below is an artist rendering of the spacecraft in orbit.

Figure 1: Nimbus Spacecraft

The High Resolution Imaging Radiometer (HRIR) instrument had a resolution of approximately 8.5 kilometers on the ground, which was high resolution in that time period. The HRIR detector operated in the 3.5-4.1 micron infrared band, where the influence of CO2 and water vapor absorption was minimized. Since the sensor was fixed and used a scanning mirror to provide image swaths (a line perpendicular to the spacecraft motion), the resolution of the system decreased to about 35 km x 20 km at the edges of the scan. The HRIR as well as the Medium Resolution Imaging Radiometer (MRIR), and the visible light Automatic Picture Transmission (APT) Camera were all mounted on the nadir face (bottom) of the spacecraft. It was a very early three axis stabilized system with a +/- 1 degree resolution pointing accuracy.

Although the Nimbus I spacecraft only operated for a few weeks, the HRIR instrument was operational during the Arctic sea ice minimum, and the Antarctic sea ice maximum in 1964. This is probably the only record of the total extent of the ice pack in that year at these critical dates and the NSIDC is very interested in obtaining this data. Sometimes we feel like Zahi Hawass, the famous head of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, climbing around in the catacombs of data.

Moving forward in time, Nimbus II was launched on May 15, 1966 and the HRIR instrument operating through November 15th 1966 when the data tape recorder failed. Some real time data was downloaded till January 17, 1969 when the Horizon sensor failed which disabled the pointing system. Over 2400 HRIR records were transmitted from the spacecraft and samples of these are the ones that we have been working on. The Nimbus III spacecraft was launched on April 14th 1969 and transmitted data from its HRIR instrument until January 25th 1970. The spacecraft failed in September of that year due to the failure of its horizon scanner.

LOIRP Team Work on Nimbus II HRIR Images

After determining that it was highly unlikely that any of the early Nimbus 2" analog tapes still existed we began our work to rectify some of the image artifacts in the Nimbus II HRIR data files. The data that we were working with is remarkably similar to the Lunar Orbiter raw analog data, but this is two generations removed from the raw data, the sync pulses and the calibration data had been removed. This was probably in order to save tape back in the 1960's. The surviving original data today is of fairly poor quality. Figure 2 shows an HRIR image scanned from the film record (again, similar to Lunar Orbiter):

Figure 2: Nimbus II HRIR Images

Both of these images are of hurricane Inez, a hurricane that had at one point a sustained wind speed of over 150 mile per hour (strong CAT-4). This hurricane killed over 1000 people in its path over the Caribbean to Mexico, making it one of the most deadly storms on record. At this time it was extremely difficult to get real time data from the spacecraft to watch the development and path of the storm, which with today's weather satellites we take for granted.

Looking at figure 2 above each line of temperature samples are really just voltages that represent temperatures of the emission of radiation from the Earth at night in the infrared (all HRIR swaths are in the nighttime). In the Nimbus nomenclature each line is a swath and it represents a scan of the Earth perpendicular to the direction of travel of the satellite. Not shown are a group of sync pulses on either end of the line. This is where our work with the LOIRP Lunar Orbiter images became important. Just as we have to line up each line of visible light image for our images of the Moon, the same is true of the Nimbus images. Figure 3 shows the nature of our problem with the Nimbus data:

Figure 3: Close up of Lake Michigan and Signal Jitter in Nimbus II Recovered Images

The "jitter" artifacts that have distorted the shape of Lake Michigan (leftmost image) are the result of a shift in the lines of temperature data in the swaths. Since all we have to work with are the third generation data that does not have the original sync pulses, there is no way to use the same methods that we have used to do line by line corrections to the Lunar Orbiter data.

Our programmer Matt Sandler has come up with a way to correct the jitter artifact that is traceable for future researchers to maintain the scientific integrity of the data. These methods are detailed in a poster that was presented at the American Geophysical Union 2009 conference in San Francisco CA in December of last year poster 1N41A-1108). Figure 4 shows the efficacy of the fix on a contrast enhanced black and white detailed image of the Lake Michigan area:

Figure 4: Image Corrections as Applied to A Detail of Lake Michigan

All of this is well and good and is proper for a scientific paper, but it is of little use unless the overall dataset is available for researchers in a modern format that is easily accessible and able to be manipulated to find the edges of the ice pack or to follow hurricanes back in that time period. Nimbus II and Google Earth

Beginning over the Christmas holidays Matt Sandler and I began an effort to translate the Nimbus II HRIR data to a Google Earth friendly format. The HRIR records have extensive embedded metadata within them that was both a help and a hindrance to our efforts. Each individual swath has 31 anchor points, which are longitude/latitude pairs that describe a function of where to place the digitized temperature data on the Earth. This was done in computer processing back in the 1960's in order to help researchers to correctly map the data to various Earth projections. When we attempted to use these anchor points, our resulting mapping of the image to Google Earth was a complete failure. After many attempts to use the anchor points in some manner that would work, we abandoned the effort and tried a different approach.

Each swath had three things that allowed us to map the images to Google Earth. The first and most important is the sub-satellite point, which is the intersection of the spacecraft's nadir face to the Earth. We also had the beginning and ending latitude and longitude from the anchor points and the altitude of the spacecraft for each data record which was provided every six swaths. Matt took this information, along with another critical piece of information, which was the field of view of the sensor, and used this to ray trace the corners of each individual temperature record to the spherical shape of the Earth from the altitude of the spacecraft. Matt did this using techniques derived from the video game software design world. We also assigned colors to the temperature records corresponding to the temperature scaling from the metadata. The result was stunning. Figure 5 is a full day of Nimbus II image swaths mapped to Google Earth:

Figure 5: Google Earth Mosaic of Nimbus II Temperature Data September 23, 1966

In looking at this data we have been able to identify the Ross Ice Shelf near the peak of the Antarctic Ice maximum of 1966 as well as a tentative identification of the ice pack for the Arctic ice minimum. We have also improved the accuracy of the geo-referencing of the data from ~40km down to ~10km. This will aid in more accurately determining the extent of sea ice. Further processing that would lead to a definitive determination of the area of the Arctic and Antarctic sea ice would be invaluable to climate change researchers as reliable data in this regard today only stretches back into the late 1970's. One of the things that the LOIRP team is going to do is to take the Nimbus II HRIR data from August 23rd 1966 and overlay that with the Lunar Orbiter 1 data on the same date for a composite mosaic. There is potential for a significant synergy between Lunar Orbiter, Apollo, and Nimbus II and III data sets. This type of synergy could provide many benefits to the Earth sciences community.

The mapping of the Nimbus II data by Matt was aided by the use of the NASA Ames developed Whirlwind package, which could be described as a scientific version of Google Earth. We have been playing around with other data sets to merge them with our Nimbus data and found on a Japanese climate website the Google Earth mapping of typhoons from 1966 on our Nimbus II HRIR data. The match was perfect and is shown in figure 6:

Figure 6: Nimbus II + Typhoon Tracks Overlaid on Google Earth KML Format

The Scientific and Social Value of Merged Data Sets

Common format programs such as Google Earth (no they are not paying me to say this) provide an impressive platform for the merging of disparate yet related data sets by unconnected researchers worldwide. This also allows an interested public a window into scientific data and its uses. The educational value of this in teaching Earth Sciences, weather forecasting, and associated disciplines is enormous as well. We will be releasing the files for this on as well as through the NSIDC.

Our team is working with our sponsors to take what we have developed as a proof of principle and extend it to all of the Nimbus II data that is currently available. Dr. John Moses from NASA GSFC is working to get the rest of the Nimbus data sets from Nimbus I and III translated from the original data tapes to a digital format that will allow this process that we have been developed to work on the rest of the HRIR data sets (the instrument flew on these early missions). This would allow Dr. Meir and his team at the NSIDC to find the total area of the Arctic sea ice minimum from Nimbus I in 1964, 1966, and 1969. We are looking to take the Nimbus data and develop mosaics that can be animated to where you could follow the tracks of hurricanes as well as the ebb and flow of the ice packs. This data exists from the later Nimbus, Landsat, and other missions as well and is a fertile field for us to develop to provide this data to the climate change, hurricane, and other Earth Sciences fields.

It seems to us that our efforts in technoarcheology for the Lunar Orbiter images is yielding a lot of fruit that we never thought about when we started our efforts. NASA spends billions of dollars in developing new missions but little funding has been available to mine these old data sets. It is our hope that by providing this data in a user friendly format such as Google Earth at a very modest cost, we can help the scientific community to benefit from this data and provide the means for the public to be involved as well. The files that we have developed and have used in the preparation of this paper will be placed on line for the public's viewing pleasure.

Our special thanks go out to Dr. John Moses from NASA GSFC who had the vision to go back to the dark archives at the National Records Center to get the Nimbus tapes and get them digitized. We also want to recognize our science PI at the NSIDC, Dr. Walt Meir who came to us to see what the possibility was to save, correct, and use the Nimbus II HRIR data sets. Dave Gallaher was our project manager and helped us in many ways, watching the development of detective work and was our guardian angel in helping to check our work. The University of Colorado Boulder handled our grant and paid on time! We look forward to seeing what the past brings to light next! And of course, thanks to Keith Cowing who has seen this project and its offspring through with his time and generous financial support.

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