NASA's Apollo 11, 12 and 14 missions carried dust detectors that were invented by Perth physicist Brian O'Brien. ((NASA))

A 1960s tape recorder the size of a household fridge could be the key to unlocking valuable information from NASA's Apollo missions to the moon.

An archiving error by NASA has meant 173 tapes holding data from the missions have sat in a facility in Perth, Australia, for almost 40 years. They 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 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 says.

"But it's now realized that dust, to quote Harrison Schmitt, who was the last astronaut to leave the moon, is the No. 1 environmental problem on the moon."

Lost in time

O'Brien's work on lunar dust took a back seat when he started working for Western Australia's Environmental Protection Authority, and NASA lost its own copies of the tapes.

"NASA, in the words of their website, misplaced the tapes before they were archived," says O'Brien.

The revelation of the loss only came two years ago. O'Brien says there is no indication as to when exactly the tapes were lost, but he guesses that it was "way, way back."

'The [IBM729 Mark 5 tape] drives are extremely rare, we don't know of any others that are still operating.' — Guy Holmes,SpectrumData

When O'Brien learned 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.

The computer enthusiasts who run the Sydney-based group agreed to lend the almost archaic-looking recorder, which is in need of tender love and care, to Holmes. He jokes that a 1970s Toyota Corolla fan belt could be used to get the recorder up and running.

"The drives are extremely rare, we don't know of any others that are still operating," says Holmes.

"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."

Holmes is hopeful of getting the tape recorder working again in January, and then he says it should only take a week to extract information that has been locked away since the early 1970s.