Curiosity Mars rover could offer stunning views of Red Planet (+video)
NASA's Curiosity Mars rover contains the most advanced robotic cameras ever sent to Mars. If Curiosity lands successfully, it could send back never-before-seen images from the Martian surface.
The huge NASA rover slated to land on Mars Sunday night (Aug. 5) is expected to give scientists and laypeople alike some amazing views of the Red Planet.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The 1-ton Curiosity rover, the heart of NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission, will try to determine if Earth's neighbor is, or ever was, capable of supporting microbial life. To help address this question, the six-wheeled robot is carrying 10 science instruments — and a wealth of high-tech camera gear.
Like its older Mars rover siblings Spirit and Opportunity, Curiosity comes equipped with cameras mounted on a head-like stalk (called the Remote Sensing Mast, or RSM), providing a point of view similar to what a person might experience. Unlike previous rovers, however, Curiosity’s imaging system — called Mastcam — has features that will offer a whole new look at Mars.
Developed by the San Diego company Malin Space Science Systems, Mastcam is composed of two separate cameras that sit side by side, not unlike a pair of eyes, just below the ChemCam instrument on Curiosity’s "head." Mastcam will allow color images to be captured directly. [Curiosity Rover: 11 Amazing Facts]
"It will take color in the same way as a consumer digital camera,” said Michael Ravine, advanced projects manager at Malin. "It’s as 'true' as your phone camera."
In addition, Mastcam can capture stereoscopic images in infrared, plus a whole range of wavelengths that are of importance to scientific goals.
Both cameras are fixed-length; zoom motors may be common in even the cheapest point-and-shoot digital cameras, but in a spacecraft they would have added extra fuel-guzzling mass.
Still, one of the cameras has a focal length of 100 millimeters (4 inches) that can resolve objects a couple of inches across at 1,000 feet (300 meters). "I think that qualifies as telephoto," Ravine said.
Scientists no longer will have to assemble time-lapse footage from individual Mars images, for Mastcam also can take high-definition video. It will capture 720p color video at six frames per second.
"In the real world that’s not quite video, but compared to time-lapse images spaced 45 seconds apart, it’s close enough," Ravine said.
And Mastcam has the ability to store its own data. With 8 gigabytes of internal memory, Mastcam can hold 5,500 raw images, which can be compressed on the fly or just before transmission back to Earth.