NASA’S CURIOSITY ROVER AND THE SCIENCE OF PHOTOGRAPHY.

Curiosity Rover Spacecraft Assembly Facility Pasadena California (2011)

Now you might be wondering what does a rover on Mars have to do with photography? Actually photography does play a small part of the rovers mission. After all it’s cameras are the rovers eyes and it’s the only way that man can see what is going on the planet.

But have you ever wondered what kind of camera equipment the rover uses? I have. After all they (NASA) did not just put any old Canon or Nikon camera on the rover. They would just fall apart in such a harsh environment.

The planet Mars is a hostile planet the martian surface temperatures vary from lows of about −143 °C (−225 °F) (at the winter polar caps) to highs of up to 35 °C (95 °F) (in equatorial summer). So of course this rover has to be built with the toughness of an M1-Abrams tank and then some. Of course the M1-Abrams tank has depleted uranium armor for warfare. So I can just imagine what materials the rover uses for the harsh conditions of Mars.

Call it a “moment of geek.” But I have always been fascinated with photography that was taken from outer space. From Earth orbit, the Moon, or even photos taken on another planet. I just find it to be such an incredible  task to do. After all… When you really think about it. These are photos taken from the mother of all road trips and outdoor photography sessions.

So what I did was do a little research to find out what was used camera wise, and this is what I have found out.  Granted I am not a rocket scientist, so even to me this is some really advanced stuff. The article below is what I have discovered.

The photos used in this post and the details about the equipment used are from http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/ and http://www.wikipedia.org 

The curiosity rover is a robotic, car-sized rover exploring Gale Crater on Mars. The Curiosity Mars rover carries aradioisotope-powered mobile scientific laboratory and is part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission by the United States. The MSL mission has four main scientific goals: investigation of the Martian climate,geology, and whether Mars could have ever supported life, including investigation of the role of water and its planetary habitability. Curiosity carries the most advanced payload of scientific equipment ever used on the surface of Mars. It is the fourth NASA unmanned surface rover sent to Mars since 1996.

Curiosity was launched from Cape Canaveral on November 26, 2011 at 10:02 EST aboard the MSL spacecraft and successfully landed on Aeolis Palus in Gale Crater on Mars on August 6, 2012, 05:17:57.3 UTC. The final landing-place for the rover was less than 2.4 km (1.5 mi) from its target after a 563,000,000 km (350,000,000 mi) journey.

Mast Camera (MastCam)

Mast Camera (MastCam)

The MastCam, MAHLI, and MARDI cameras were developed by Malin Space Science Systems and they all share common design components, such as on-board electronic imaging processing boxes, 1600×1200 CCDs, and a RGB Bayer pattern filter. The MastCam system provides multiple spectra and true color imaging with two cameras. The cameras can take true color images at 1600×1200 pixels and up to 10 frames per second hardware-compressed, high-definition video at 720p (1280×720).

One camera is the Medium Angle Camera (MAC), which has a 34 mm focal length, a 15-degree field of view, and can yield 22 cm/pixel scale at 1 km. The other camera is the Narrow Angle Camera (NAC), which has a 100 mm focal length, a 5.1-degree field of view, and can yield 7.4 cm/pixel scale at 1 km. Malin also developed a pair of Mastcams with zoom lenses, but these were not included in the final design because of the time required to test the new hardware and the looming November 2011 launch date.

Each camera has eight GB of flash memory, which is capable of storing over 5,500 raw images, and can apply real-time lossless or JPEG compression. The cameras have an autofocus capability that allows them to focus on objects from 2.1 m (6 ft 11 in) to infinity. In addition to the fixed RGGB Bayer pattern filter, each camera has an eight-position filter wheel. While the Bayer filter reduces visible light throughput, all three colors are mostly transparent at wavelengths longer than 700 nm, and have minimal effect on such infrared observations. In comparison to the 1024×1024 color panoramic cameras used on the Mars Exploration Rover (MER), the MAC MastCam has 1.25× higher spatial resolution and the NAC MastCam has 3.67× higher spatial resolution.

Navigation cameras (Navcams)

The rover has two pairs of black and white navigation cameras mounted on the mast to support ground navigation. The cameras have a 45 degree angle of view and use visible light to capture stereoscopic 3-D imagery.

NASA Curiosity first image without dust cover.

Hazard avoidance cameras (Hazcams)

The rover has pairs of black and white navigation cameras (Hazcams) located on the four corners of the rover. They are used for autonomous hazard avoidance during rover drives and for safe positioning of the robotic arm on rocks and soils. ( If you ask me it sounds like a backup/parking camera on a car.) The cameras use visible light to capture stereoscopic three-dimensional (3-D) imagery. The cameras have a 120 degree field of view and map the terrain at up to 3 m (9.8 ft) in front of the rover. This imagery safeguards against the rover crashing into unexpected obstacles, and works in tandem with software that allows the rover to make its own safety choices.

Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)

MAHLI is a camera on the rover’s robotic arm, and acquires microscopic images of rock and soil. MAHLI can take true color images at 1600×1200 pixels with a resolution as high as 14.5 micrometers per pixel. MAHLI has a 18.3 mm to 21.3 mm focal length and a 33.8- to 38.5-degree field of view.MAHLI has both white and ultraviolet LED illumination for imaging in darkness or fluorescence imaging. MAHLI also has mechanical focusing in a range from infinite to millimetre distances.  This system can make some images with focus stacking processing. MAHLI can store either the raw images or do real-time lossless predictive or JPEG compression.

The 4.5 m (15 ft) diameter heat shield falling away from the rover, imaged by the Mars Descent Imager camera (MARDI) installed on bottom of Curiosity.

Curiosity landing.

Mars Descent Imager (MARDI)

During the descent to the Martian surface MARDI took color images at 1600×1200 pixels with a 1.3-millisecond exposure time starting at distances of about 3.7 km to near five meters from the ground, at a rate of five frames per second for about two minutes. MARDI has a pixel scale of 1.5 meters at two km to 1.5 millimeters at two meters and has a 90-degree circular field of view. MARDI has eight GB of internal buffer memory that is capable of storing over 4,000 raw images. MARDI imaging will allow the mapping of surrounding terrain and the location of landing. JunoCam, built for the Juno spacecraft, is based on MARDI.

And of course there are all the science packages that the rover carries as well for it’s Mars mission. All of which is very important. But this post covers just the camera equipment used in the mission. After all the photos taken are a once in a lifetime event.

In any event NASA has once again proven to us all that anything is possible.
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