Next Mars rover to have 23 cameras


Wednesday, 08 November, 2017


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NASA has announced that its Mars 2020 rover will be equipped with 23 cameras — more than any rover before it. Together, the cameras will work to create sweeping panoramas, reveal obstacles, study the atmosphere and more.

When NASA’s Mars Pathfinder touched down in 1997, it had five cameras: two on a mast that popped up from the lander and three on NASA’s first rover, Sojourner. As time has passed, cameras have dramatically shrunk in size and increased in quality. The Spirit and Opportunity rovers were designed with 10 cameras each, including on their landers, while Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover has 17.

Now, 23 cameras are being incorporated into the Mars 2020 rover, currently being built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The cameras will provide dramatic views during the rover’s descent to Mars and be the first to capture images of a parachute as it opens on another planet. There will even be a camera inside the rover’s body, which will study samples as they’re stored and left on the surface for collection by a future mission.

Image caption: This image presents a selection of the 23 cameras on NASA's 2020 Mars rover. Many are improved versions of the cameras on the Curiosity rover, with a few new additions as well. (For a larger version, click here.) Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The cameras on 2020 will include more colour and 3D imaging than on Curiosity, said Jim Bell of Arizona State University, principal investigator for 2020’s Mastcam-Z. The ‘Z’ stands for ‘zoom’, which will be added to an improved version of Curiosity’s high-definition Mastcam, the rover’s main eyes.

Mastcam-Z’s stereoscopic cameras can support more 3D images, which are suitable for examining geologic features and scouting potential samples from long distances away. Features like erosion and soil textures can be spotted at the length of a soccer field. Documenting details like these is important: they could reveal geologic clues and serve as ‘field notes’ to contextualise samples for future scientists.

“Routinely using 3D images at high resolution could pay off in a big way,” Bell said. “They’re useful for both long-range and near-field science targets.”

The Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers were all designed with engineering cameras for planning drives (Navcams) and avoiding hazards (Hazcams). These produced 1 MP images in black and white. On the new rover, the engineering cameras have been upgraded to acquire high-resolution, 20 MP colour images.

Their lenses will also have a wider field of view. That’s critical for the 2020 mission, which will try to maximise the time spent doing science and collecting samples.

“Our previous Navcams would snap multiple pictures and stitch them together,” said Colin McKinney of JPL, product delivery manager for the new engineering cameras. “With the wider field of view, we get the same perspective in one shot.”

That means less time spent panning, snapping pictures and stitching. The cameras are also able to reduce motion blur, so they can take photos while the rover is on the move.

Of course, all this upgrading also means beaming more data through space. As noted by Justin Maki of JPL, Mars 2020’s imaging scientist and deputy principal investigator of the Mastcam-Z, “The limiting factor in most imaging systems is the telecommunications link. Cameras are capable of acquiring much more data than can be sent back to Earth.”

To address this problem, rover cameras have gotten ‘smarter’ over time, especially regarding compression. NASA has also gotten better at using orbiting spacecraft as data relays — a concept that started as an experiment with NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter and was pioneered for rover missions with Spirit and Opportunity.

NASA plans to use existing spacecraft already in orbit at Mars — the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN and the European Space Agency’s Trace Gas Orbiter — as relays for the Mars 2020 mission, which will support the cameras during the rover’s first two years.

Top image credit: ©pandawild/Dollar Photo Club

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