NASA’s Perseverance rover will look at Mars through two zoomable eyes
The Mastcam-Z on the Perseverance rover is better than the cameras on the Curiosity rover because of these zoom cameras that will help scientists and rover drivers with high-res colour images
This summer, when NASA's Perseverance rover launches, it will be equipped with the most advanced pair of eyes ever sent to Mars. The Mastcam-Z instrument on the Perseverance sports next-gen zoom capability that will help the mission make 3D imagery more easily. Rover drivers, the people who plan out the driving route of the movements of the rover's robotic arm, view these images through 3D goggles to figure out the contours of the landscape.
Placed on Perseverance's head, the Mastcam-Z is a more advanced version of the Mastcam on NASA's older Curiosity rover. It's the camera Curiosity used to create stunning panoramas of the red planet. The Mastcam-Z will do all that and more - it will produce images that people can see to follow the rover's daily adventures and discoveries, but it will also provide key data to help engineers and scientists choose interesting bits of rock to study. Curiosity's Mastcam could not zoom, the Mastcam-Z can.
The Curiosity Mastcam was initially designed to be zoomable, though. However, it proved to be hard to achieve at that point in time, 2011 when Curiosity was launched, in such a small instrument.
"The original plan was for Curiosity to have a zoom camera that could go out to an extreme wide angle like a spaghetti western view," said Jim Bell of Arizona State University, Mastcam-Z's principal investigator and Mastcam's deputy principal investigator.
"It would have been an amazing panoramic perspective but proved really hard to build at the time."
Curiosity's Mastcam has one telephoto lens and one wide-angle lens. Images are taken through each of the lenses and these can be combined to produce stereo views. But the wide-angle lens takes in far more of the landscape in a single shot than the telescopic one; it requires up to nine telescopic images to match, explains the blog on the Mars Exploration Program.
The Mastcam-Z on the Perseverance simplifies things, "zooming both lenses until they match and can be used to make a single 3D image". This process is easier and requires sending fewer images, and less data, to Earth.
Besides providing a stereo view to help choose the safest path, "the Mastcam-Z will help geologists choose scientific targets and better understand the landscape that rock samples are found in: Did they fall from a neighboring cliffside? Are they from an ancient stream?"
The blog explains that Mastcam-Z will provide "superhuman vision", "viewing the landscape in a variety of colors (wavelengths of light), including some that can't be detected by the human eye". "Scanning the terrain in the ultraviolet or infrared, for example, could reveal metal meteorites dotting the surface or color variations indicating compositions that warrant more detailed analysis by other instruments," the blog explains.
Bell's first experience with Mars pictures was as an 11-year-old, watching images on the nightly TV news sent back by the Viking landers in 1976. Mastcam-Z's principal investigator was later involved in the Mars Pathfinder mission and went on to lead the Pancam systems on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers.
The vistas that Perseverance will send back from its landing site, the Jezero Crater, will be just as significant for those who work on the mission and everyone who's following along.
That's why there are plans to share the Mastcam-Z images and mosaics made by the amateur community on a public website. "It's important that the public have a sense of ownership. The Mastcam-Z images belong to all of us," Bell said.
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