4.1.3 Meteorological data – Apollo 8

There are a number of locations that supply general weather data for the Apollo 8 period, but relatively few show good synoptic charts. For this reason we are restricted to looking at what is available, rather than the case with satellite photos where any image of earth can be matched.

The monthly weather review (MWR) from ESSA (the organisation, not the satellite) for December (MWR) reveals (as do many newspaper headlines of the time) a very cold period with heavy snowfalls – reaching record levels in some areas.

NOAA has a facility to reproduce the weather maps of any given period here: Daily Weather Maps.

Germany kept comprehensive records and these can be found in here NOAA data,  here German data, and there are documents from South Africa that also show synoptic charts with fronts marked on the: South African data. The same NOAA site has records from Pakistan here, but frontal systems are not marked.

It's important to note that at this point in history, synoptic weather charts were still mostly drawn by hand by interpolating data from weather stations, weather balloons, buoys and ships. Satellite meteorology was still in its infancy, and much research was aimed at reconciling terrestrial and non-terrestrial sources of information. It's also worth pointing out that, while a front (the point where two different air masses meet) will have a cloud mass associated with it (caused by temperature and pressure changes altering the moisture carrying capacity of the air), clouds do not always indicate the presence of a front.

A good starting point for comparing Apollo photos and synoptic charts is the first colour earthrise image examined earlier, AS08-14-2383, and the photograph taken an orbit later,  AS08-12-2188, as there are a number of systems that can be seen on the chart and the photographs (see figure 4.1.78). Figure 4.1.79 shows the synoptic charts for the Northern Hemisphere on 24/12/68 as given in the German and South African data.

Figure 4.1.78: Earth as seen in AS08-14-2383 and  AS08-14-2388 (sources in text)

Figure 4.1.79: German & South African Synoptic charts for 24/12/68.

As already established, these photographs were taken on 24/12/68.

Clearly visible are a band of cloud in the North Atlantic, and a large weather system off South Africa. Image quality for the German synoptic chart is poor, and for this reason the weather fronts marked on the map have been highlighted in red. For orientation purposes, the bottom left of the image shows Central America.

The main front visible in the colour Apollo image in the Northern Hemisphere is the one arrows in blue above. The weather front behind it (identified by the green arrow) is the same one visible from on the Long Beach Independent's screenshot of Apollo 8's live TV broadcast. The red arrow points to the swirl of cloud visible off South Africa, and this same front is the one that is still visible in figure 4.1.79. A word of explanation is required for the difference in data overland compared with that over the sea. The isobars offshore represent atmospheric pressure related to the amount of mercury raised in a barometer. The lines overland represent geopotential, which takes a given atmospheric pressure and looks at the altitude you would need to be at to reach that pressure. It is a slightly different way of looking at the same information, and is where meteorologists derive the terms 'ridges' and 'troughs' when describing atmospheric conditions.

Two other images will be examined here, both of which have been looked at previously. The first is AS08-16-2595 - available here. This image was taken on the way to the moon and readers are invited to examine the satellite images in the Appendix if they wish to satisfy themselves that this is the cause. The reason this image has been chosen is that it clearly shows America, and a zoomed and cropped version of it is shown in figure 4.1.80 together with the NOAA weather charts from that day.

Figure 4.1.80: Earth from AS08-16-2595 and NOAA synoptic chart for 21/12/68.

Again, there is good correspondence between the Apollo photograph and ground based meteorological data.

The final image examined is AS08-16-2601, available here, taken on the 22nd of December, and chosen here for the clear image of Southern Africa (see figure 4.1.81).

Figure 4.1.81: South African synoptic chart compared with AS08-16-2601.

This time, as well as identifying the fronts, the area arrowed in red identifies a small lobe of high pressure air that is helping keep the skies clear over eastern South Africa.

In conclusion this section demonstrates that three satellites, a couple of TV broadcasts, video footage, synoptic data and a number of still photographs all show a degree of correspondence with each other that makes it difficult to draw any conclusion other than that the Apollo images were taken when & where it is claimed they were taken: on the way to, orbiting around and returning from the Moon.

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