Mars Rovers: Picture Perfect Robots -- An Interview with Jim Bell

Mars Rovers: Picture Perfect Robots -- An Interview with Jim Bell
Taking its own self-portrait, Spirit Mars rover is shown in full exploration mode within Gusev Crater. Image (Image credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell)

There'smajesty on Mars. Through the lenses of two wheeled robots--Spirit and Opportunity--the red planet'saustere but stunning landscape has been captured in thousands of images relayedback to Earth.

Beforehumans on Mars pose themselves for those take home photographs, our eyes havealready been firmly planted on that time-weathered world.

BothNASA rovers remain hale and hardy as they near three years of rolling aboutwithin their respective exploration zones after setting down to business onMars in January 2004.

Eachrover made the trip with carry on luggage: science instruments and cameras. Andnow thanks to a new book, Postcards from Mars (Dutton, 2006), anextraordinary gallery of hand-picked images shows Mars in first-time format.

Huge volume

"I'ma tactile book person. I like the printed page and seeing images," explainedJim Bell, author of Postcards from Mars, a landscape photographer sincehe was a child. He is an associate professor in the Cornell UniversityAstronomy department and leader of the team who designed and operate the colorPanoramic Camera (Pancam) systems on the twin Mars rovers.

Whilethe images taken by Spirit and Opportunity can be found posted across the Internet,it's often difficult to find them all in a single spot, Bell told"So I thought it would be a good idea to gather my impression of the greatesthits to date in one place," he added.

Sofar, the rovers have collectively churned out over 160,000 images, Bell noted.

Putthat in focus with the Viking Mars landers of the 1970s that relayed 1,400images. Then there's the 1997 mission of Mars Pathfinder/Sojourner thattransmitted about 16,000 images.

"We'vehad spectacular orbiters relaying the data to Earth for us. So we've been ableto downlink so much more," Bell pointed out. For the book, he had a huge volume ofSpirit and Opportunity imagery to cull through that were taken into late spring of 2006.

Foldouts from another world

ThePancam on each rover provides a truly human viewpoint, Bell observed. In termsof resolution and natural color, the rovers are providing the best look to dateof what it's like to actually stand there on Mars.

Marsscenery as caught by each Pancam--from about a meter and a half above thelandscape--is at the height of a typical 10 year old kid.

Bell stressed that hedoesn't have a favorite between the two robots. "Each of them is so different.The discoveries each has made are complementary, but different. I wanted tokeep that balance in there," he said, so the book's photo spreads are prettyevenly split between Spirit and Opportunity.

Admittedly,there were tough decisions about the set of foldouts for the book--select viewsthat reflect the sweeping topography of Mars.

"Itried to make a representative sampling of the different kinds of terrain thatwe have driven through," Bell said.

Making tracks

Howdoes one go about picking "greatest hits" from the treasure trove of roverphotographs? The book showcases over 150 of Bell's favorites.

"Mostof the time we haven't had the luxury of thinking like photographers andcomposing images. It's been a rare luxury...something we haven't been able to dothat often," Bell responded.

Havingparts of the rover in the foreground, be it outstretched robot arm, solararray, or the deck of the Mars machinery, gives a sense of depth of field, Bellsaid. "The other thing that seems to resonate well with the public is seeingthe rover tracks."

Bell explained that thewheel tracks imprinted in martian surface are particularly appealing when they converge off toward the horizon.

"Itjust gives you a sense of adventure, think of a covered wagon...adune buggy. You just think of traveling," Bell suggested. "You can imagine yourself beingout there and seeing this scene. It's a natural, bizarre alien scene but hereare these tracks. They are a familiar thing. Here's a car driving across thelandscape."

Next real leap

Despitethe dual rovers being given an A-plus on their photo assignments, the limelightwill be shared given future hardware now being readied for Mars.

Nextsummer, NASA's Phoenix Mars lander departs for the red planet's icy north pole.Its cameras are akin to the rover Pancams, using the same detectors andcomparable optics.

Thenext real leap in surface camera equipment is to be toted by NASA's MarsScience Laboratory (MSL), a huge rover that blasts off in 2009.

MSL'smast cameras--Mastcam for short--would capture the martian terrain in colorphotos, three-dimensional images, and high-definition video. New features onthe Mastcam would make it more versatile than previous rover cameras.

Bell is on the Mastcamteam led by Michael Malin of Malin Space Science Systems of San Diego, California.

"It'sa wonderful camera system that can go in color to a resolution about threetimes better than the rover Pancams," Bell explained. "It's going to be a beautiful,beautiful imaging system."

Blood, sweat and tears

Meanwhile,Spirit and Opportunity soldier onward.

Puttingtogether Postcards from Mars, Bell said was a very emotional experience."Seeing it all in one place...all the different scenes. It shows the amount ofteam work and collaboration. It represents the blood, sweat and tears ofhundreds and hundreds of people."

Today,Spirit is perched for more action, ready to tackle new observations near theColumbia Hills.

Planetarypartner, Opportunity, is taking astounding imagery from the edge of the huge Victoria Crater. Chances are goodthat this robot will wheel itself down into that large feature, Bell said.

"It'sincredible how much our attitude has changed from early on...when it was justrush, rush, rush, thinking that we're going to die at any moment. Now we'rethinking long-term because we've been able to," Bell said. More good news is that the camerason both rovers remain in good, sharp-shooting shape, he added.

SoPostcards from Mars, Volume 2, might seem right?

"Nokidding, with the way we're going," Bell concluded.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.