Geologist Photographer, Photographer Geologist

The TV screen flickered to life as my family arranged themselves on the couch. On-screen, an aerial photo of Porto Rafti, a small seaside town east of Athens, Greece, marked the beginning of a two-week undergraduate geology department field trip to Cyprus. Figuring it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I had diligently photographed everything notable. I began regaling the family with photos of layered gabbro, sheeted dikes, pillow basalts, slag, boudinage, gypsum, corals, umber, and more. But halfway through, my dad interrupted to ask, “So, were there any people on this field trip with you”?

Or Dinosaurs? Dinosaurs would be fine, too. (Source: Jurassic Park / University Studios)
Or Dinosaurs? Dinosaurs would be fine, too. (Image source: Jurassic Park / Universal Studios)

It was a jarring question, and I realized my family was about to be bored out of their skulls.  If the roles were reversed it would be like sitting through “And here were are standing in front of the Historical Building. And here we are inside The Building. Oh, and this is a great one of your father pointing out the millwork on the ceiling joists”. I had wanted to share with them my portraits of Cyprus and the fascinating geology of an ophiolite. They wanted smiling faces in front of stuff – and not just for scale. The story on screen was not the one they expected, and I wound up fast-forwarding through most of the geology-centric photos.

brittle_ductile_faultsCommon advice when speaking to the ‘public’ is to respect your audience, which would have served me well. Photos are a form of communication, and as in all forms it is important to keep the audience in mind so part of the image stays with them. Sometimes the form is academic, to fill the frame with brittle and ductile faults (right). We can annotate, measure, discuss, hypothesize, and argue about the rocks. These are the sorts of photos to put in conference talks, the simplest “true” photos of the Geologist as Photographer Wedge.

However, geology is a global science, and geologists have the opportunity to photograph some wonderful locations (even in our own backyard, or in the lab). Extending beyond the utilitarian will naturally draw more interest to geological phenomena. There are multiple ways to improve image aesthetics, the simplest of which is to improve technical ability: composure, lighting, post-processing, etc. Tips and resources are everywhere, and a subset deal specifically with geological photography. However, there’s a field resource I think is underused by almost every geologist photographer: Humans. And not just for scale.

People crowd outcrops, poke their head into frame at inopportune times, shy away from the camera, or maybe only ever show their backside. But at the same time, they are interacting with the environment, picking up rocks, and pointing out interesting features. Capturing these aspects can be difficult, but when done properly will make for more dynamic photos. You can still get the academic shots and record sweeping vistas. It’s something I’ve noticed more by following National Geographic’s new blog PROOF, which tells some behind the scenes stories from Nat Geo photographers.

BIF and JeremyAn easy place to start is with your trip leader, as they typically gesture at everything and point out interesting features that everyone can see. Geologists get animated in the field, too, and are more animated in front of an outcrop.

Candid shots are rather more difficult, but it seems worth the effort when a broader audience will be interested in the photos. I think visiting zoos has helped me to practice for the field (not to draw too close a comparison…), because you get a feel for how patient and predictive you need to be to get a good photo. For example, one of my current favorites is of a relatively simple geologic feature, below:

students on rocks
Notre Dame students examine a large-scale reduction band in the Jacobsville Sandstone at Presque Isle Park, Marquette, MI.

Field work (and field trips) typically involve long hours, so it is not uncommon to be in the out for both the morning and evening golden hour. Above, our early morning expedition was rewarded with a clear sunrise on Lake Superior. For the geologists, the reduction band in the Jacobsville sandstone shows up clearly as the large ‘diagonal’ band at our feet. But there’s another layer of texture on top that draws other viewers in. The group was not scattered across the band for long, and I had to get into position and adjust my aperture to get a well-exposed and properly framed shot before the next shift.

People feature in more than half the photos (approaching 65%) from my last two field trips, up from less than a third in the Cyprus trip mentioned above. I’ll end with an encouragement for everyone to try and take more interesting photos of people in the field, and include one more photo below. The two halves show the same thing (ejecta strewn fields) on two planetary bodies, and it is the humans that tie the photos together.

Top: Boulder field at Camelot Crater from the Apollo 17 mission. Panorama compiled by Warren Harold of NASA/JSC. Bottom: Looking outward from the rim of Meteor Crater
Top: Boulder field at Camelot Crater from the Apollo 17 mission. Panorama compiled by Warren Harold of NASA/JSC. Bottom: Looking outward from the rim of Meteor Crater

This was originally intended to be part of Accretionary Wedge #56 (Geologist as Photographer) but wound up heading in a different direction and taking too long to be included.

Pat’s Field Trip (Guide?) to Mt. St. Helens, Part I

In August 2013, Dana Hunter started posting a day trip guide to Mt. St. Helens. The timing couldn’t have been better, as I was (a) about to embark on a weeklong vacation to Central Washington that September, (b) planned to spend a day around Mt. St. Helens with a friend, and (c) had no idea how to spend that day. Dana teased us with distant mountain views oozing with serenity and grandeur and other Muir-y words. Unfortunately, Dana did not take my vacation plans into account, and her guide approached Mt. St. Helens from the west. Because my friend and I were coming from Eastern Washington, we would be stationed northeast in foresty La Wis Wis Campground. To loop around to the West entrance of Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument would require a few extra hours drive, and thus less time around the mountain. And so, instead, we figured on writing our own story by taking the road less traveled to the Windy Ridge observatory. This is that story (with GIFs!).

Zero Hour, 9AM: On the road in Yakima, the “Palm Springs of Washington”. Yakimanians gave themselves this nickname partly because the sun shines 300 days a year, and mostly to point out that they are not Seattle (motto: “The Seattle of Washington”). After two hours of westward & upward driving over a mountain pass, we caught our first glimpse of the mountain.

Wait, that's Mt. Rainier! Well, we can work with that
Wait, that’s Mt. Rainier! Well…we can work with that. Taken just south of Chinook Pass on the east edge of Tipsoo Lake (in foreground).

Obviously, Mt. Rainier should be your first stop on the road to Mt. St. Helens. Approaching from the east, it’s about the same time and distance to either the Sunrise or Paradise Visitor Centers. We headed for Sunrise to get a face-full of mountain. Sunrise is also the higher and typically less-crowded of the two visitor centers.

At Chinook Pass on State Route 410, you can stop and stretch your legs around Tipsoo Lake (0.5 miles), or take the longer Naches Peak Trail (3.75 miles) if you have more time. This area is also your best bet for views of Mt. Rainier before heading into the White River Valley, where Mt. Rainier is hidden behind smaller mountains, ridges, and the tall pines. Outcrops are plentiful on the switchbacks down from Chinook Pass, but I was too focused on the mountain to take more than a couple of photos along the way (foolishly deleted because we never stopped to examine the rocks). Continuing on your way to Mt. St. Helens, continue on State Route 410 to get to the Sunrise entrance. This will technically take you north and away from Mt. St. Helens, but don’t worry about that for now. There are a few pull-offs for viewing valley vistas, but the only must-stop area (besides at the park entrance) is well within the park, at Sunrise Point. This is an obvious stop on a switchback that curves around a parking lot. The small lot can get rather full late in the day, so I advise you to stop on your way to Sunrise since it is now just before lunch. You can’t see Mt. St. Helens from here – Mt. Rainier is kind of in the way – but there are relatively unobstructed views north and south.

Mt. Rainier from Sunrise Point
Mt. Rainier from Sunrise Point
Mt. Adams from Sunrise Point. This photo taken almost immediately to the left of the previous shot of Mt. Rainier.
Mt. Adams from Sunrise Point. This photo taken almost immediately to the left of the previous shot of Mt. Rainier.
Looking north from Sunrise Point over Sunrise Lake. Marcus Peak (6962 ft) is the small peak at left
Looking north from Sunrise Point over Sunrise Lake. Marcus Peak (6962 ft) is the left-most peak.

High Noon. Read up on the sights at the informative signs here, or even take a 7 mile trek (3.5 miles out and back) north on the Palisades Lakes Trail. While you are out doing that, we’ll continue to our next stop on the road to Mt. St. Helens, which is of course the Sunrise Visitor Center. Fuel up with some lunch before heading out, and hopefully you’ve brought some food because the gift shop doesn’t pack much in the off-season. Also, turns out the iconic visitor center is closed for renovations (something about asbestos) and because it is the off-season. And grab a map (PDF of the printed version available on site) to plan your hike, because the forest ranger is also gone for the day! We decided to hike a mish-mash of trails, starting out on the Sourdough Ridge Trail toward Frozen Lake, looping down to the First Burroughs Mtn. and then back via Glacier Overlook:

An afternoon hike around the Sunrise area
An afternoon hike around the Sunrise area. I think we spent around three hours on the trail.

Be warned, that first incline is like a punch in the face after sitting in a car all day. It’s good to get the blood flowing, but pace yourself! Once you get warmed up, that second climb feels more reasonable. Fortunately there is an excellent vista on the Sourdough Ridge Trail where you can stop to take photos because it is beautiful and definitely not because your heart is working its way up into your skull.

McNeeley Peak from Sourdough Ridge Trail. Marcus Peak is just off to the right of center.
McNeeley Peak from Sourdough Ridge Trail. Marcus Peak is just off to the right of center.

Did you notice that the trees are shorter on the left side of that image at higher elevation? That’s because you are close to the treeline, and will be above it when you reach Frozen Lake. Also note how green is the valley, especially compared to similar mountainscapes from the Rockies. For now, Mt. Rainier has not suffered much from pine beetles or the more common (in the Northwest) white pine blister rust (PDF, 2008).

An elk grazes in Rocky Mountain National Park with Bowen Mtn in the background. The pine beetle has left its mark in the form of swaths of dead trees.
An elk grazes in Rocky Mountain National Park with Bowen Mtn in the background (Estes Park, CO). Dead pines are the work of the pine beetle.

While you were thinking about the Rockies, we made it to Frozen Lake. Only a bit of snow is lurking in the leeward side of the nearby hill, shielded from the wind blowing ripples across the decidedly unfrozen surface of Frozen Lake. Can’t have it all…

Golden-mantled ground squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis) near Frozen Lake
Golden-mantled ground squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis) near Frozen Lake. Goldie here is common in mountainous regions of North America.

Wildlife Corner: We saw two golden-mantled ground squirrels (Callospermophilus lateralis) near Frozen Lake who didn’t appear too fazed by our presence. Birdwise, there were a few scattered crows and mysteriously chirpy birds near the First Burroughs Mountain. Below the treeline, I think we saw a few Clark’s Nutcrackers hopping about in pines (if I’m remembering what they looked like correctly). Milbert’s Tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais milberti) landed on the trail near us for a moment, and the meadows below Sunrise were full of very friendly bees.

Milberts Tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais milberti)
Milbert’s Tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais milberti)

Above the treeline, a sign informs us, the area is similar to the arctic tundra. It is quite a visual contrast to the valley we left behind.


Our closest approach to Mt. Rainier was the First Burroughs Mtn. Perhaps if you are in better shape or have more time, you could continue on to the Second Burroughs. We’ll stay here and catch our breath, munch a granola bar, and enjoy the view for a while.

Our closest approach to Mt. Rainier
Mt. Rainier from the First Burroughs.

Little Tahoma Peak (at left) is relatively snow-free, as is flat-topped Gibraltar Rock. The snowpack is split into two glaciers by the triangular Steamboat Prow (Emmons at left, Winthrop at right). The isolated glacier in the foreground of Steamboat Prow is Inter Glacier (a.k.a. the Interglacier). Hidden from view at the apex of Steamboat Prow is Camp Schurman, which serves as a ranger station and climbing stop. In Emmons Glacier, a narrow ridge pokes out at high elevation and transitions to a medial moraine downslope. The center of Emmons Glacier is covered by less debris than the margin, as it is relatively faster-moving and further from those debris sources. The thick, flat slab coming down off the peak to the right is Willis Wall, a remnant of one of Mt. Rainier’s more recent volcanic episodes (10-15 thousand years ago). Age refs and a useful simplified geologic map are available in a USGS Special Publication.

Emmons Glacier is the source of the White River and that glacial lake.
Emmons Glacier, the source of the White River and that glacial lake. That beautiful hanging cirque has origins in colder times.

On the way to Glacier Overlook, be sure to turn around every once in a while to get new perspectives on Rainier and the valley. A cirque (the bowl shaped depression carved out by a glacier) hangs over the White River Valley above a milky green glacial lake. The toe of Emmons Glacier is covered by a debris from a 1963 avalanche.

Emmons Glacier on Mt. Rainier

In the previous images, you can see the snowpack transitioning from soft-edged at the peak, to more dissected and then debris covered downslope. I’m curious to know where the equilibrium line is, which is where snow accumulation is equal to loss via melting and ablation. I think it might be at the transition to the more jagged, exposed form, but it isn’t always an obvious “line”.

Sunrise Visitor Center
Sunrise Visitor Center

The visitor center is always picturesque, and only looks better after a long hike. Here it is flanked by the Sourdough Ridge Trail leading to Antler Peak (second peak in from left) and Dege Peak (right). Later, on your flight back to Seattle, be sure to sit on the left side of the plane for a potentially fantastic view of Mt. Rainier and the Sunrise area.


4PM: Recoup in the parking lot for a bit before continuing on your way to Mt. St. Helens.

A change of plans: LunGradCon goes virtual

For the past four years, the Lunar Graduate Conference (LunGradCon) was held the Sunday prior to the Lunar Science Forum. The Forum’s host organization was recently restructured into the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute. This is something I’ve mentioned before, and it means future Forums will be broader in scope. The final lunar-centric forum was scheduled for July 16-18, 2013 at NASA Ames in California. However, NASA travel restrictions and nebulous budget cuts to planetary science forced lunatics and research organizations alike to tighten their belts. Despite promises to the contrary, most scientists I spoke with believed the Forum would end up cancelled. Thus it was a bit of a mixed bag when an April e-mail announced a change in format to an all-virtual Forum. Three months before the meeting. Three months before LunGradCon.

LunGradCon would have been in Mountain View, California, which is lovely in mid-July. Our host was the NASA Ames Research Center, where in the past we’ve taken tours of the wind tunnels and helicopter research wings. We were making plans to expand our tours to include SETI and the vertical gun range. And although travel to California can be costly, the majority of our budget was allocated toward travel funds for all attendees. Suffice to say, we never had a problem enticing grad students to fly out early to network and present among their peers. But with no Lunar Science Forum to glom on to, the numbers just weren’t there. We had to adapt or cancel.

Maybe next year, Ames.
Maybe next year, Ames.

The LunGradCon planning committee was really non-plussed about the situation. With no in-person component, what did we have to look forward to? Another day of staring at a computer and listening to talking heads? With conferences, if you only go to talks and posters then you are missing out on half the experience. The other half is networking, with real human interactions, introductions, collaborations, and commiserations at the bar. My gut reaction was to vote to cancel in protest with an accompanying statement from the committee (maybe leaving out the part about the bar).

Network building in action! (2011 LunGradCon)
Network building in action, a.k.a. bringing people together through random activities. (“Point at the Moon”, 2011 LunGradCon)

Honestly though, canceling would have been a selfish snap decision. LunGradCon was not singled out for a virtual makeover. Times are tough all over, and planetary science in general has taken quite a hit. We could pick up our toys home and refuse to play this new game, but that would take us out of the conversation. We would also lose the opportunity to reconnect with LunGradCon alums and build new contacts in the lunar graduate student community. And bare bones, that is what LunGradCon was established to do. So we put out the call for registrants and abstracts and left it up to the community to decide if they wanted a virtual conference. It turns out they did.

The amount of interest from graduate students exceeded my expectations. There was a fairly even split of registrants between returning (15) and new (18), from 23 different institutions. Unfortunately, I was too busy with planning committee details during the conference to note the maximum number of people to join the day of. We had a good number of talks to keep LunGradCon brief and engaging, with scheduled time for extra discussion and overviews on lunar research.

Last minute group shot with some of the attendees (2013 LunGradCon)
Last minute group shot with some attendees of the 2013 LunGradCon.

The participants roundly agreed (via post-conference survey) that LunGradCon went over rather well. I was pleased to see some old colleagues and make new acquaintances. The conference opened with an icebreaker that everyone enjoyed (despite it running over time, which was our fault for not scheduling enough time for it). International students found it easier to join a virtual conference compared to getting visitor badges for NASA Ames, and we had students presenting from Canada, Germany and India. More questions were asked during discussion sessions compared to some previous years – we think it was a combination of participants having more time to flesh out questions before asking, the detached nature of virtual questions providing a comfort zone, and the ability to revisit questions from earlier in the day. Kerri had also compiled a glossary of terms that proved a valuable resource for many students listening to talks outside their field.

Some of my worries did, unfortunately, play out. A major selling point of LunGradCon is to provide a peer-only environment for students to present their work and get feedback on content, style, cohesion, etc. Normally these are handouts everyone fills out during/after each talk. This year the forms were Google Docs and we only had responses from ~1/3 of the group for each presenter. I was certainly forced to leave a few forms blank, as were several planning committee members. We were engaged in a surprising number of tech troubleshooting and schedule issues. The session chairs reported similar distractions on occasion.

This year’s meeting was successful, but I hope that future SSERVI Forum and LunGradCon meetings will be more tangible. There really is no substitute for meeting people face to face. Lastly, after guiding the conference into the digital realm, the Heidi-Jamey-Kerri-Patrick organizing committee is disbanding. Jamey Szalay is sticking around as a link to the past, and we are bringing in some excellent new planning committee members. And with a virtual conference under our belt, I am more confident in the ability of LunGradCon to continue bringing students together in any venue.

The 2011 & 2012 LunGradCon planning committee. From Left: Pat Donohue, Kerri Donaldson Hanna, Jamey Szalay, Heidi Fuqua
The 2012 & 2013 LunGradCon planning committee with our poster at the 2013 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. From Left: Patrick Donohue, Kerri Donaldson Hanna, Jamey Szalay, Heidi Fuqua

Long live LunGradCon!

AW#58: Signs

July’s impromptu Accretionary Wedge is Signs! (geological or geographical). Obviously I’m going geological. Enjoy a photo from the Catskills trip previously featured in the Field Stories Wedge. This photo is from later the same day, as the group discussed structural interpretations of a roadcut just out of frame. Although you can’t see it, you should believe in the road cut because of the FALLEN ROCK ZONE sign. Believe!

Class and Fallen Rock Zone Sign
Caution: Geologists and Fallen Rocks!

Warning signs are great markers for geology stops, and this sign is a classic example from Upstate New York. As a bonus, discussing structures on the side of a busy highway (or on-ramp, in this case) is also a classic “sign you might be a geologist”!

AW#57: Seeing geology everywhere

“Do you see geology in unexpected places? Do you often find yourself viewing the world through geology-tinted glasses? Do you have any adorable cat pictures that could be used to illustrate geology?” Evelyn, Accretionary Wedge #57 call for posts

All liquids spilled on a work desk are naturally drawn to electronics and important papers. No counter-arguments allowed, that’s the rule. But don’t you wish your desk had better drainage? Subtle pathways that divert disastrous fluids to safety? With a little imagination, I think my desk would have pretty good drainage.

What i my desk?
What is my desk? Wood veneer, of course! Click for geology-vision.

I see two parallel N-S valleys with drainage to the south. These hopefully abandoned stream beds are separated by a long narrow ridge with an asymmetric profile like a drumlin. Don’t quite see it on the photo above? Click through for a mockup. And why not a drumlin? This is after all Indiana. Or…maybe Upstate New York? Yes, I rather like that. My New York hometown, here at my desk in Indiana. In fact, it takes no time at all to find similar landforms in a USGS 1:24000-scale map.

What is my desk?
What is my desk? A contour map, of course! A staple for field geologists. (Source: USGS topographic map of a square mile near my hometown)

Although with no elevations for reference, maybe my interpretation is off. Are my drainage pathways in the right spot? Or could those two “valleys” on my desk actually be additional ridges, making this more like a Valley-and-Ridge Province? There’s no way to know for sure, but that’s fine as long as it could make sense.

Creating wood grain landscapes is a fun way to pass the time in waiting rooms…or in your office when your mind goes blank from writing a dissertation. Staring at my desk, which is no longer my desk, but a symbol. A swarm of lines. A wealth of information. The view from a few hundred meters straight up in the air. And in all directions as far as the eye can see, geology is everywhere!

Do your worst (presentation)

Check out the ridiculously awful graph below. Bravo, Helena, it offends all kinds of sensibilities:

This sort of thing gets filtered out of conference posters and talks, but it would have been right at home in a presentation I made freshman year. Actually, I wish I’d thought of it back then because the assignment was to make the Worst Presentation Ever. And then never do it again. ‘Go nuts now with animation and colors and get it out of your system early’, the prof would say, making an apt metaphor for college at the same time.

To keep us focused on the visual rather than content side, we had 5 minutes to present on “where we saw ourselves in ten years”. And boy did I have visions. Not so much for my future self – my predictions were limited to things like “graduated” and “alive” – but I had visions of pain for my soon-to-be audience of classmates.

Drawing upon years of running a terrible website through GeoCities, I had vast collections of ridiculous images and GIFs. Oh, the GIFs! Not like the awesome nature GIFs of today, but more like grainy, neon, seizure-inducing background GIFs. I threw in everything I could think of: Those backgrounds, every “intro” animation Powerpoint offered, a duck that chococat_duck_yellowslowly floated across the screen in the background, a fake “conclusions” slide three slides in, thirty acknowledgements, a sound bite from Monty Python (that didn’t work)…Basically, I had a lot of fun with the project.

Making such a ridiculous presentation paid off in several ways. For one, it was my first ever PowerPoint presentation, where I learned how fast I can talk (wicked fast, it turns out). Another student demonstrated the importance of contrast when he used black text on a dark blue background. Most importantly was that, over the next four years, nobody made an awful presentation with anywhere near the level of atrocities that mine had unleashed. To a lesser extent, the project also forced us to explore the nooks and crannies of PowerPoint, which for better or worse is the universal science conference platform. We had to build on the default backgrounds, templates, colors and organization styles to make it our own. We learned it takes a lot of time and effort to make a presentation look great (or terrible), and even more time to make it sound great. And by the end of the project we were able to see – rather than just being told – how unnecessary and distracting were the whiz-bang extras of PowerPoint.

The presentation was one of several projects in the course, where we also read and discussed chapters from John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, collected volcanic ash to look for zircons, and did a couple other things I’ve forgotten. Mainly though, the course gave the freshmen geology majors (all six of us) a chance to interact with one another and the prof on a semi-formal basis. I hope other colleges offer similar courses to students, and would almost rank it with other “dream courses” if it wasn’t already offered.

Course description, from here:
GSCI 191: Intro to Geology at Geneseo
An introductory course for first year students who are considering a career in the Geological Sciences. Weekly meetings will focus on career opportunities, pertinent academic information, campus and department resources, and study skills and time utilization. This course also intends to promote a close working relationship between students and faculty. Cannot be counted toward the Geological Sciences major. Graded on an S/U basis. Credits: 1

The long road to ALSEP data recovery

The human presence on the Moon did not end with Gene Cernan’s final footsteps, nor with Jack Schmitt’s final words before the Apollo 17 lunar module launched from the lunar surface on December 14th, 1972. The remnants of the six Apollo endeavors will, of course, remain on the lunar surface indefinitely as monuments of 20th Century space exploration. But for five years after Apollo 17, a human presence on the Moon was maintained through a collection of experiments at each landing site called the ALSEP program.

ALSEP lunar mass spec
Down-Sun picture of the Lunar Mass Spectrometer with the main hub and antenna in the background. (Image from the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal)

Over 5000 ARCSAV tapes were produced during the years of ALSEP data collection, and today most of these are missing

When the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) program was terminated on September 30th, 1977, it brought an end to 8 years of continuous data collection on a planetary body – a record that would stand (I believe) until Opportunity rolled past 3000 sols in 2012. And, much like Opportunity, ALSEP experiments long outlived their nominal one-year lifetimes. The ALSEP program relayed real-time data on seismicity (natural and astronaut-made), solar wind strength, ion flux, shallow surface heat flow and more to the distributed Manned Space Flight Network on Earth. Analog magnetic tapes (14-track range tapes) from the distributed network were collected at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) for further processing and re-recording. Range tapes made between November 1969 and February 1973 were to be permanently archived at Goddard Space Flight Center. Between 1973 and February 1976, a day’s worth of data from each site were stored onto separate magnetic tapes (7-track digital ARCSAV tapes) so range tapes could be recycled. Data processing was moved offsite (1976-1977) to the University of Texas, where the use of ARCSAV tapes were replaced by 9-track digital tapes (work tapes). And throughout this eight year period, numerous tapes were made for preliminary reports by PIs (PI tapes). Well over 5000 ARCSAV tapes were produced during the years of ALSEP data collection, and today most of these are missing.

SDS Sigma 7 tapes
In fact, if this tape rack represented the entirety of the ALSEP data collection, we would only have about three tapes (Image by fastlizard4 on Flickr)

The extended-mission life of ALSEP operations created some unanticipated issues for PIs. For example, the six passive seismic experiments recorded data 24-hours a day, enough to fill over one thousand range tapes per year for each site. The ever-growing volume of data tapes were increasingly difficult for PIs to work with, though this was abated somewhat by transferring to higher data-density tapes. The sharp decline in post-Apollo funding – NASA’s budget dropped by a third in the 1970’s – meant some PIs could not devote the hours necessary for data processing and maintenance. Although PIs were instructed to archive tapes with the Washington National Record Center (WNRC), the requirements were vague and poorly enforced and so only an estimated 50% of the PI data were archived. In some cases this was only a subset of processed, “scientifically important” data as selected by PI teams.

Records show something like 3270 ARCSAV tapes made between April 1973 to February 1976 were sent to WNRC. Records also show a massive withdrawal of analog tapes from WNRC, prompted by the tape shortage in 1980, which included ~2800 ARCSAV tapes as Goddard Space Flight Center staff searched high and low for reusable/recyclable tapes. Fortunately, the 7-track digital tapes were not their target (the Apollo 11 landing footage tapes were probably not as fortunate), but instead of returning them to WNRC the ARCSAV tapes were stored in the basement of GSFC. Many of these were later destroyed in a 1990 building flood, and the trail of surviving tapes goes cold after they were removed from the basement of GSFC during cleanup.

Modern computers could do so much more with the ALSEP tapes than was previously possible, if only the data were available. The potential was highlighted in the 1990’s when the University of Texas ’76-’77 tapes were reprocessed and made available on the National Space Science Data Center. But a concerted effort to find the missing tapes wouldn’t get off the ground until 2004, when the presidential mandate for space exploration sparked a resurgence in lunar research in terms of both interest and funds. With practically zero ground-truth characterization of the lunar surface (apart from returned samples and meteorites) and lunar atmosphere, the ALSEP program was a natural target for reevaluation. Suddenly there was a call for these tapes that were nowhere to be found. The NLSI Recovery of Missing Data Focus Group was formally convened in 2007 and is a multi-institutional, (mostly) volunteer-run effort led by some of the original ALSEP PIs.

ALSEP dust detector data tape
Apollo 12 dust detector PI tape of days 465-468 (Source: Prof. Brian J. O’Brien PI and SpectrumData)

It is through the efforts of the ALSEP focus group that most of what we know of the tapes has come to light. Every year at the Lunar & Planetary Science Forum (in March) and Lunar Science Forum (in July), the group has a side meeting where they share their successes and frustrations. And there have been successes. In 2010, ~450 ARCSAV tapes made between April and June of 1975 were recovered from WNRC. And at some point, a large quantity of ALSEP data was condensed onto microfiche and microfilm, and also backed up on paper. For LPSC this year, an abstract from the group announced the complete restoration of seven lunar data sets. Another eight data sets are in the final stages and will likely be completed by LPSC, with a promise of more to come. In short, many raw data tapes have been recovered…and also some processed data tapes, and reprocessed tapes of processed data tapes, and prints of raw and processed data…now what?

Hopefully “restoration” should hint at something more involved than slapping an ARCSAV tape in a reader and ripping it onto a hard drive like a CD. Well…OK, that is part of it. But unsurprisingly, such tape readers in working condition are increasingly rare, and at least some of the ARCSAV data recovery was outsourced to data recovery/conversion companies or citizens. Prof. Brian J. O’Brien (Australian government) was an original PI for the Early Apollo Surface Experiments Package (EASEP) and ALSEP Dust Detectors (Apollo 11, 12, 14, and 15) and the Charged Particle Lunar Environment experiment (Apollo 14). He maintained possession of a number of original tapes (including the one pictured above), and is working with SpectrumData to recover quality data.

And quality is the other main issue here. Tape quality degrades over time. Converting tape formats can introduce transcription errors. Processed data might be missing metadata on conversion programs, units, calibrations, random transcription errors, or whatever “corrections” the PI deemed necessary. Even in raw data tapes, anomalies occasionally occur because, after all, they came from the Moon.

It's all the way past those trees and everything.
It’s all the way past those trees and everything. (Photo by poikiloblastic)

Without relevant metadata (including telemetry to assess transmission quality), the tapes would be worse than useless because any product would rest on a flawed foundation. That remains a major obstacle to data restoration. Significant progress in terms of tapes acquired and metadata resolved has been via cooperation with PI teams and their universities, with one PI even lending an ALSEP experiment notebook to scan for use in calibrating a data set. Prior to archiving with the Planetary Data System, data sets undergo peer review. The ALSEP-recovered-data-related abstracts submitted to LPSC this year are a promising sign of the science return we can expect to see from these important datasets in the years to come.


Almost all of the details above are collected from focus group meetings at the NLSI Lunar Science Forum (2011 & 2012), as well as ALSEP Data Recovery Focus Group progress abstracts submitted to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (2011 & 2013). My contribution to the focus group thus far has been to introduce myself at the beginning of said meetings.

ALSEP system and experiment reports are available from the LPI website.

Recovered EASEP and ALSEP data sets are archived in the Planetary Data System Geoscience Node.

Related: Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Program (LOIRP)