NASA?s newest Mars rover, a hulking robot the size of a small car, has received its camera eyes as engineers assemble the nuclear-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 Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), which is slated to launch on a $2.3 billion mission in 2011.

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

Curiosity will carry an ambitious set of instruments yet for studying Mars up close to understand the planet?s past, present and potential to 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 zoom function that would allow them to take close, telephoto looks at targets and then shift back to a wide-angle view when required.  But NASA scrapped development of the zoom lens in 2007 as a cost-cutting measure.

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

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

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

Race to finish

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

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

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

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