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Spring 2011

Not Lost in Space: Professor Recovers Data from Apollo Missions

by John Davis

NASA's Apollo 15 and 17 Missions

Images from NASA's Apollo 15 and 17 missions Images from NASA's Apollo 15 and 17 missions Images from NASA's Apollo 15 and 17 missions Images from NASA's Apollo 15 and 17 missions

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Photos Courtesy NASA

Professor Recovers Data from Apollo Missions

Geosciences expert Seiichi Nagihara is helping NASA restore and reanalyze data received from the moon.

From 1969 to 1972, astronauts with NASA’s Apollo missions planted geophysical instruments on the surface of the moon that discovered moonquakes and measured the heat released from the interior of the moon.

The data beamed back to Earth by radio signal. Then in 1974, NASA cancelled most of the funding for the data analysis project.

But that didn’t stop the data from collecting for another three years. Now, a Texas Tech researcher is on a mission from NASA to piece together the long-forgotten data and finish the analysis.

Mission: Data Recovery

Seiichi Nagihara, an associate professor in the Department of Geosciences, received a two-year, $45,000 research grant from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to help the center fully restore, digitally archive and reanalyze the data collected from the geothermal heat-flow instruments placed on the moon during Apollo 15 and 17.

Nagihara and the Goddard team hope to restore the full records of the Apollo heat flow experiments and use modern computers to reanalyze the data to better understand the moon’s internal structure.

That’s easier said than done, though, Nagihara said.

“Right now, it’s a detective story,” he said. “After 1974, NASA’s focus quickly shifted, and it seems that nobody there kept detailed records on who did what with the Apollo heat-flow data obtained from 1975 to 1977. The principal scientist who was involved in the original analysis did not use the data from these years, and he died more than 10 years ago. But, by reading old NASA documents and contacting the people who were involved in the Apollo missions, my collaborators at Goddard and I are tracking down the missing data. We have recovered some pieces of the data, but still have a long way to go.”

So far Nagihara and the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Packages team have confirmed the existence of about 450 of the tapes used to record data during the missions from April 1975 through June 1975. However, he said this is only about one-tenth of the total number of tapes generated.

Nagihara recently presented his latest findings at the 42nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston. Read the presentation abstract here.

Seiichi Nagihara

A Hot Topic

Nagihara is an expert in how the Earth releases its heat, which is why he is one of the researchers recruited to reanalyze the moon’s heat-flow data. Once he has found and compiled as much of the “lost” data as he can, he will try to determine why different areas of the moon give off different amounts of heat.

“On Earth, the plate tectonics explain a lot about why and how heat flow is different from one locality to another,” he said. “The moon has no plate tectonics. That makes it more challenging for me.”


John Davis is a Sr. Writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing at Texas Tech University.

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Nov 24, 2015