NASA’s upcoming mission to Mars will mark another milestone for camera technology, as the Mars 2020 rover will be equipped with an unprecedented number of cameras. This should allow for an extremely crisp and clear view of the Red Planet and its surface, as well as more accurate science observations as the rover’s “eyes” work in tandem with its other instruments.
In a press release last week, NASA wrote that camera technology on its Mars rovers has come a long way since the space agency’s Pathfinder spacecraft touched down in 1997. All in all, there were only five cameras, including two that popped up from the lander and another three on the Sojourner rover. Spaceflight Insider added that subsequent rovers came with more cameras, with Spirit and Opportunity having 10 each and the most recent rover, Curiosity, having a total of 17.
Those figures will all be trumped by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, which will come with 23 cameras. These cameras include the SkyCam, which will work in tandem with several weather instruments to study the Martian atmosphere and the planet’s clouds, the CacheCam, which will observe rock samples being stored into the rover’s body, and a special camera that will guide the landing through a new form of technology known as terrain relative navigation.
Interestingly, the Mars 2020 rover’s suite of cameras will allow for a number of firsts in space travel history. Six entry, descent, and landing cameras will capture the first ever clip of a parachute opening outside of Earth. The SuperCam Remote Micro-Imager, or RMI, will have color, marking a change from the ChemCam imager found on the Curiosity rover. Also of note are the engineering cameras and the new Mastcam-Z, both of which improve on Curiosity’s camera technology by offering higher resolution and more sophisticated capabilities.
“Camera technology keeps improving,” read a statement from Mars 2020 imaging scientist and Mastcam-Z deputy principal investigator Justin Maki of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.
“Each successive mission is able to utilize these improvements, with better performance and lower cost.”
One important part of the Mars 2020 rover’s camera suite is the aforementioned set of engineering cameras, which are upgrades over the Navcams and Hazcams found on previous Mars rovers. These cameras, which were respectively used to plan drives and help rovers avoid hazards, were only capable of 1-megapixel black-and-white images. The new rover, however, features engineering cameras capable of high-resolution, 20-megapixel images in color, as well as a wider field of view. NASA wrote that the latter feature is important, as it will allow more time on the mission for scientific research and sample gathering.
“Our previous Navcams would snap multiple pictures and stitch them together,” explained JPL scientist Colin McKinney, product delivery manager for the Mars 2020 rover’s engineering cameras.
“With the wider field of view, we get the same perspective in one shot.”
Another advantage of the Mars 2020 rover’s cameras is the fact that they will be extremely light, weighing in at less than one pound, as Spaceflight Insider noted.
Despite all those advantages, NASA scientists are preparing themselves for the biggest challenge related to the Mars 2020 rover’s cameras — they are so sophisticated that they may likely end up sending considerably more data back to Earth. According to Outer Places, NASA is planning a few workarounds that will hopefully rectify the issues, including the use of higher-end compression software, and the use of the Mars Odyssey orbiter as a data relay.
[Featured Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/Getty Images]