Newest Mars Rover Gets Powerful Camera Eyes

NASA?s newest Mars rover, a hulking robot the size of asmall car, has received its camera eyes as engineers assemble thenuclear-powered spacecraft for a planned launch next year.

The cameras, known collectively as the Mast Camera (Mastcam),will be mounted to the mast of Curiosity rover, formerly known as the MarsScience Laboratory (MSL), which is slated to launch on a $2.3billion mission in 2011.

NASA?s robotic Mars explorer Curiosity is the latest in along line of robots aimed at the red planet. It is much larger than the twinrovers Spirit and Opportunity currently exploring Mars and ispowered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which converts heat shed bydecaying plutonium into energy, instead of solar arrays.

Curiosity will carry an ambitious set of instruments yet forstudying Mars up close to understand the planet?s past, present and potentialto host primitive life at any time in its history. The rover?s cameras,naturally, are at the core of that science mission.

Zoom views on Mars?

The cameras were originally intended to include a zoomfunction that would allow them to take close, telephoto looks at targets andthen shift back to a wide-angle view when required.  But NASA scrappeddevelopment of the zoom lens in 2007 as a cost-cutting measure.

In its place, the Fixed Focal Length Mastcam was built byMalin Space Science Systems, Inc. (MSSS) — a veteran builder of red planetcameras — and delivered to NASA?s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena,Calif., to be installed on the rover. This camera system does contain atelephoto lens, providing the rover with long-distance reconnoiteringcapability.

The current Mastcamcameras are capable of taking full color images similar to thosetaken by consumer digital cameras. When mounted to the mast of Curiosity, thecameras can be panned and tilted to provide image coverage around the rover, aswell as both near the rover and out to the horizon.

While the Mastcams have fixed focal lengths of 34millimeters and 100 millimeters (telephoto), and relatively small fields ofview (15 degrees and 5 degrees), they will be used to build up coverage from aseries of small individual images as they pan over the Martian landscape aroundthe rover. The Mastcams can also provide high-definition color video.

Race to finish

Zoom capabilities may still be within reach for theCuriosity rover, however, as NASA recently decided to fund the completion ofthe zoom cameras. If the zoom cameras can be assembled and checked by MSSS inthe time for the MSL rover's final testing early next year, there is still thepossibility that the Fixed Focal Length Mastcams may be swapped out for thezoom versions, rover engineers said.

"The fixed focal length Mastcams we just delivered willdo almost all of the science we originally proposed," said Michael Malin,Mastcam principal investigator. "But they cannot provide a wide field ofview with comparable eye stereo. With the zoom Mastcams, we'll be able to takecinematic video sequences in 3-D on the surface of Mars."

That 3-D video capability on Mars would be a boon for fameddirector James Cameron, whose latest film "Avatar" has been a 3-Dphenomenon, since he is also the public engagement co-investigator forCuriosity?s Mars Science Laboratory mission.

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Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and a contributor to She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.