Canberra, Nov 11 : Missing NASA tapes from the 1960s, which could be the key to unlocking valuable information from the space agency's Apollo missions to the moon, have been retrieved by scientists.
According to a report by ABC News, an archiving error by NASA in the 1960s resulted in 173 data tapes being misplaced, which hold information about lunar dust that could be vital in expanding science's understanding of the moon.
The Apollo 11, 12 and 14 missions of the late 1960s carried "dust detectors" that were invented by Perth physicist Dr Brian O'Brien. This information was beamed back to earth and recorded onto tapes.
O'Brien had access to the tapes at University of Sydney, but the scientific papers on moon dust he published with the preliminary findings failed to spark as much interest from the scientific community as he was hoping for.
"These were the only active measurements of moon dust made during the Apollo missions, and no-one thought it was important," he said.
"But, it's now realised that dust, to quote Harrison Schmitt, who was the last astronaut to leave the moon, is the number one environmental problem on the moon," he explained.
O'Brien's work on lunar dust took a back seat when he started working for Western Australia's Environmental Protection Authority, and when NASA lost their copies of the tapes it meant the information was basically laying fallow.
"NASA, in the words of their website, misplaced the tapes before they were archived," said O'Brien.
The revelation of the loss only came two years ago. According to O'Brien, there is no indication as to when exactly the tapes were lost, but he guesses that it was "way, way back".
When Dr O'Brien learnt of the tape loss, he was contacted by Guy Holmes from data recovery company SpectrumData, who offered to try and get hold of the information.
Holmes has kept the tapes in a climate-controlled room since then, and it was only when he stumbled upon a 1960s IBM729 Mark 5 tape drive at the Australian Computer Museum Society that his company had the ability to unlock the information.
According to Holmes, "The drives are extremely rare, we don't know of any others that are still operating."
"It's going to have to be a custom job to get it working again. It's certainly not simple, there's a lot of circuitry in there, it's old, it's not as clean as it should be and there's a lot of work to do," he added.
Holmes is hopeful of getting the tape recorder working again in January, and then it should only take a week to extract information that has been locked away.