Luna 3: Photographing the Far Side of the Moon without Digital Technology

The far side of the moon (frame 29) as shot by Luna 3

It is 1959. Just two years have passed since the launch of the USSR’s Sputnik 1 satellite blew the starting whistle for the Space Race. Sputnik 2, carrying poor Laika the dog, and the American satellite Explorer 1 swiftly followed. Crewed spaceflight is still a couple of years away, but already the eyes of the world’s superpowers have turned to Earth’s nearest neighbour: the moon.

Early attempts at sending probes to the moon were disastrous, with the first three of America’s Pioneer craft crashing back to Earth, while a trio of Soviet attempts exploded on launch. Finally the USSR’s Luna 1 – intended to crash-land on the surface – at least managed a fly-by. Luna 2 reached its target, becoming the first man-made object on the moon in September 1959.

The stage is now set for Luna 3. Its mission: to photograph the far side of the moon.

Luna 3

Our planet and its natural satellite are in a state known as tidal locking, meaning that the moon takes the same length of time to circle the earth as it does to rotate around its own axis. The result is that the same side of the moon always faces us here on Earth. Throughout all of human history, the far side has been hidden to us.

But how do you take a photograph a quarter of a million miles away and return that image to Earth with 1950s technology?

At this point in time, television has been around for twenty years or so. But the images are transient, each frame dancing across the tube of a TV camera at, say, Alexandra Palace, oscillating through the air as VHF waves, zapping down a wire from an aerial, and ultimately driving the deflecting coils of a viewer’s cathode ray tube to paint that image on the phosphorescent screen for a 50th of a second. And then it’s gone forever.

For a probe on the far side of the moon, with 74 million million million tonnes of rock between it and the earthbound receiving station, live transmission is not an option. The image must somehow be captured and stored.

Video tape recorders have been invented by 1959, but the machines are enormous and expensive. At the BBC, most non-live programmes are still recorded by pointing a film camera at a live TV monitor.

And it is film that will make Luna 3’s mission possible. Enemy film in fact, which the USSR recovered, unexposed, from a CIA spy balloon. Resistant to radiation and extremes of temperature, the 35mm isochromatic stock is chosen by Soviet scientists to be loaded into Luna 3’s AFA-Ye1 camera, part of its Yenisey-2 imaging system.

Luna 3 launches on October 4th, 1959 from Baikonur Cosmodrome in what will one day be Kazakhstan. A modified R-7 rocket inserts the probe into a highly elliptical Earth orbit which, after some over-heating and communications issues are resolved, brings it within range of the moon three days later.

The mission has been timed so that the far side of the moon is in sunlight when Luna 3 reaches it. A pioneering three-axis stabilisation system points the craft (and thus the camera, which cannot pan independently) at the side of the moon which no-one has seen before. A photocell detects the bright surface and triggers the Yenisey-2 system. Alternating between 200mm f/5.6 and 500mm f/9.5 lenses, the camera exposes 29 photographs on the ex-CIA film.

The AFA-Ye1 camera

Next that film must be processed, and Luna 3 can’t exactly drop it off at Snappy Snaps. In fact, the Yenisey-2 system contains a fully automated photo lab which develops, fixes and dries the film, all inside a 1.3x1m cylinder tumbling through the vacuum of space at thousands of miles per hour.

Now what? Returning a spacecraft safely to Earth is beyond human ability in 1959, though the following year’s Vostok missions will change all that. Once Luna 3 has swung around the moon and has line of sight to the receiving stations on Earth, the photographic negatives must be converted to radio broadcasts.

To that end, Yenisey-2 incorporates a cathode ray tube which projects a beam of light through the negative, scanning it at a 1,000-line resolution. A photocell on the other side receives the beam, producing a voltage inversely proportional to the density of the negative. This voltage frequency-modulates a radio signal in the same way that fax machines use frequency-modulated audio to send images along phone lines.

Attempts to transmit the photographs begin on October 8th, and after several failures, 17 images are eventually reconstructed by the receiving stations in Crimea and Kamchatka. They are noisy, they are blocky, they are monochromatic, but they show a sight that has been hidden from human eyes since the dawn of time. Featuring many more craters and mountains and many fewer “seas” than the side we’re used to, Luna 3’s pictures prompt a complete rethink of the moon’s history.

Its mission accomplished, the probe spirals in a decaying orbit until it finally burns up in Earth’s atmosphere. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight will capture the public imagination, and unmanned space missions will suddenly seem much less interesting.

But next time you effortlessly WhatsApp a photo to a friend, spare a thought for the remarkable engineering that one day sent never-before-seen photographs across the gulf of space without the aid of digital imaging.

One of the 500mm exposures
Luna 3: Photographing the Far Side of the Moon without Digital Technology

Physical vs. Digital: Moving Day Musings

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Part of my DVD collection, packed ready for the move

I blogged recently about my upcoming home move, and how I was throwing out my Mini-DV tapes. Moving to a smaller place forced me to consider what’s important to me and what I can live without, and it’s interesting how the march of technology affects those decisions.

A few years back I got rid of my CD collection, choosing to use just iTunes for listening to music. More recently I considered doing the same with my DVDs. After all, how could I justify having 100-odd DVDs on my shelves, when they could all fit onto a hard drive the size of just one of those cases? If I could just import my DVDs into my iTunes library like I did my CDs, I would have done it. Movies on physical media would be no more for me. But of course you can’t do that. You have to buy all your films again as downloads. Or rip them all using Handbrake, which is clumsy, tedious, and unreliable, but nonetheless maybe I’ll do that some day soon.

The decision is harder with films than music, because – to be perfectly honest – I was always a bit embarrassed of my CD collection. I had no regrets about losing their physical presence from the shelves where all could see them. Ironically, in recent months I’ve acquired a turntable and a small vinyl collection, which I’m quite proud of.

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All hail the Boss

There is definitely something, then, about physical media and its packaging that appeals to me. As a kid I would always make packaging for stuff – drawing covers for my amateur films, making boxes for Lego kits of my own creation. Packaging, that physical presence, is deeply engrained in me, and perhaps my whole generation. It’s telling that, when I first considered dumping my DVDs, I planned to have a noticeboard onto which I would pin a postcard or magazine cutting image of each film I owned as a download, to proudly display my virtual movie collection.

And then there are books. I love books, and my personal library constituted a significant proportion of my stuff on moving day. A small memory stick, at an infinitessimal fraction of the size and weight, could store all of these tomes; many of them would be free to acquire digitally, as they’re out-of-copyright classics; and many of them, in all likelihood, I will never read again. Yet still I can’t part with them. Perhaps because the book is a centuries-old invention, that does not rely on a compatible device to play it, that never runs out of batteries, that shows its history in every crease and grubby fingerprint. Particularly with those classics, I feel connected to everyone who has ever read that story down the years, even if the copy I’m reading is brand new.

One thing that did go, however, was my TV. Again, a deeply engrained part of my life, but one which no longer feels necessary or relevant. (Conversely, radio increasingly connects with me, but that’s probably just because I’m getting old. Ken Bruce rules.) There is rarely anything I really want to watch on, and if there is then the best use of my time is to save it for my next train journey and download it to watch on my iPad. So both of my TVs and DVD players departed, along with my TV license.

I also said goodbye to my printer, which I pretty much ceased to use once I got my iPad – my new means of taking documents out into the wild. And my landline, which saw most use recently as a means to contact BT telling them I no longer need their services. If only Alanis Morrissette understood irony this well. (And now you start to see why I was embarrassed by my CD collection.)

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Just before the removal van arrived

Phone, printer, TV, CDs. Not so long ago, life without those things seemed unimaginable. Who could have predicted I would ditch these things, yet retain records and books? Vinyl sales are on the increase – is this a sign of a wider backlash against the intangible realm of the digital? Will 35mm projectors make a comeback in the homes of movie connoisseurs? OK, probably not.

And this is the final paragraph, where I wrap these musings up into a nice, tidy point. Sorry, there isn’t one. I just wanted to put down some of the thoughts about the transience of media and technology I’ve been having. What media is important to you? Is the medium itself important, or is it only the content that matters?

Physical vs. Digital: Moving Day Musings

Mini-DV Memories

Goodbye, Mini-DV
Goodbye, Mini-DV

I’m moving soon, to a much smaller place, and lots of my stuff has to go. Amongst the things going into bin bags at the moment is a large number of Mini-DV tapes. Funny to think how ubiquitous they were in the micro-budget movie world just a few years ago, and now they’re a thing of the past.

How could a mere 720 x 576 pixels ever have looked good? (I frequently deinterlaced my DV footage and cropped it to 16:9, which must have reduced the vertical resolution to about 200 lines!) Cathode ray tubes certainly helped. CRT screens have a lovely softness, which I still prefer to LCDs, and that softness blurred the limited number of pixels into one organic image. Bright colours were particularly softened, a fact which Mini-DV compression exploited by devoting little data to chrominance, resulting in blocky saturated colours that looked terrible on your computer, but which blurred magically back into acceptability on your CRT TV.

An example of very blocky saturated colours in Soul Searcher
An example of very blocky saturated colours in Soul Searcher

I don’t know how many stops of dynamic range a typical DV camera had, but it wasn’t many. Shooting in daylight was a nightmare; you could never find an aperture setting where you weren’t losing loads of detail in blown-out whites and/or crushed blacks. I embraced the contrast, lighting everything like film noir, which the format handled pretty well. In this 2005 featurette I outline the lighting techniques I learnt for Mini-DV. While incredibly crude by today’s standards, the underlying principles are still sound.

Shooting Soul Searcher on my XL1
Shooting Soul Searcher on my XL1

The video bitrate of DV was just 25mbps. By comparison, my Blackmagic Production Camera shoots at 880mbps – that’s 35 times more detail per frame. Despite this, there were a few big theatrical films shot on DV, Lars von Trier’s The Idiots being first. Perhaps the best known is 28 Days Later, shot on a Canon XL1, a camera I owned for several years.

I loved that camera! And in some ways it was better than today’s ultra-HD cinema cameras. It was so light and comfy to put on your shoulder. You didn’t need a rig – it actually had a bloody hand grip next to the lens! And get this – it had a viewfinder! That came with it, no extra charge! There was no DITing, no dual system sound to sync. How easy it all was!

A nice bit of noir lighting from Soul Searcher
A nice bit of noir lighting from Soul Searcher

After shooting my feature film Soul Searcher and countless other projects I DPed, my XL1 met an ignoble end, its lenses Ebayed and its malfunctioning body Freecycled. I’d foolishly bought a Sony A1, an awful, awful HDV camera that I was stuck with until I joined the DSLR revolution in 2011.

minidvThat A1 will not survive my moving cull either. It’s languished in a drawer for the last few years, my sole remaining means of playing back old DV tapes. Now the tapes are going, so will the camera.

So goodbye, Mini-DV. I cut my teeth on you. Your accessibility allowed me to learn my craft, and your shonky dynamic range forced me to learn to control light. For that I will always be grateful.

Mini-DV Memories