The Other Half
Is getting there really half the fun?
Last November, NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity was launched in Earth’s latest mission to explore Mars. During its 500-million kilometer voyage to Mars (a distance of almost two round trips from the Earth to the Sun), the 7-foot high, 1-ton rover has been a very patient passenger. Sure – there’s been an in-flight instrument test here, a mid-course correction there – but mostly, Curiosity has been cruising through space, waiting to begin its primary mission: to help scientists better understand the climate and geology of the planet, determine whether it ever could have supported life, and help plan for a possible future human mission to Mars.
And soon, it will finally be able to begin that work. On August 6 at 1:31 AM EDT, the rover will complete a gentle (but spectacular) landing on the surface of the planet. And after initial systems tests to confirm that everything is working properly, Curiosity – the biggest, most sophisticated piece of equipment ever sent to explore the surface of another planet – will start exploring.
We’re pretty excited about this mission, since the scientific cameras on board the rover, all designed by Malin Space Science Systems, are based on KAI-2020 Image Sensors from Truesense Imaging. The Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) will capture hundreds of color images while the rover descends to the planet’s surface, providing an initial framework of the landing site for early operations. Want to see what it’s like to land on Mars? The video sent back from MARDI will let you ride shotgun.
The Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) will capture high resolution images of Martian rocks and soil to better understand the geologic history of the planet, and at its closest range can provide a resolution of less than one one-thousandth of an inch (around 14 microns) per pixel – enabling the detection of objects less than the width of a human hair. And since the camera is located on the end of the rover’s robotic arm, it can also capture images of the ground, the surrounding terrain – or the rover itself.
But some of the best views of Mars will likely come from the Mast Camera (MastCam), which will capture high-resolution images of the terrain explored by the rover. The right-eye MastCam (MastCam-100) uses a 100 mm telephoto lens to provide resolution about three times better than any previous landscape-viewing camera sent to the surface of Mars. (How good? This camera can tell whether you’re holding a basketball or a football in your hand from a distance of seven football fields, or over 600 meters.) The left-eye (MastCam-34) uses a 34 mm lens to provide a view of the surroundings about three times wider than the first camera. And both of these cameras capture full color 720p high definition video (1280 x 720) at up to 6 frames per second, well beyond the capabilities of cameras used on any previous mission to Mars. So the pictures – and videos – coming from the mission should be better than anything we’ve ever seen coming from this planet.
Getting there may be half the fun. But for Curiosity, I have a feeling that the other half is going to be a lot better.