NASA’s 2020 Mars rover Perseverance, a part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, is scheduled to launch between July 17 and August 5 to hunt for evidence of extraterrestrial life on the red planet. To help it achieve its objective, the new rover will have the most advanced pair of “eyes” ever sent to Mars.
“Its Mastcam-Z instrument packs a next-gen zoom capability that will help the mission make 3D imagery more easily,” NASA said in a press release. Rover operators, who plan driving routes and movements of its robotic arm, will view these stereo images through 3D goggles.
The Mastcam-Z is located on Perseverance’s head. NASA said that it is a more advanced version of the Mastcam that helped the Curiosity Mars rover to produce panoramas of the Martian surface. The Mastcam-Z will not only produce images that enable the public to follow the rover’s daily discoveries, but it will also provide key data to help engineers navigate and scientists choose interesting rocks to study.
Curiosity’s Mastcam also used to perform these tasks but the difference is that Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z can zoom as well. The Z in Mastcam-Z stands for ‘zoom’.
What can the new camera do?
Curiosity’s Mastcam has one telephotos lens and one wide-angle lens that take images and then combine to produce stereo views. However, since the wide-angle lens takes in far more landscape in a single shot than the telescopic one, it requires up to nine telescopic pictures to match.
Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z simplifies matters in this area. It zooms-in both lenses until they match to make a single 3D image. This is both easier and requires sending fewer images and lesser data to Earth. Mastcam-Z will provide a stereo view to help drivers choose the safest path. It will also help geologists choose scientific targets and better understand the landscape that rock samples are found in.
Mastcam-Z will provide ‘superhuman vision’ to view the landscape in a variety of colours (wavelengths of light), including some that can’t be detected by the human eye, NASA said. The instrument isn’t a spectrometer, but it can provide mineral clues that other instruments will follow up on, using its ultraviolet or infrared vision to reveal metal meteorites.
“The camera system can observe the Sun and sky, watching for transits of Mars’ moons across the Sun and measuring how dust storms and cloud formations change over the seasons,” NASA said.
Why Curiosity couldn’t have a zoom camera
While Curiosity’s Mastcam was also initially designed to be zoomable, it proved difficult to achieve at the time in such a small instrument in 2011.
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“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.”
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