NASA's Next Mars Rover Will Be Given 23 "Eyes"

Artist's impression of Mars 2020 Rover. NASA/JPL-Caltech

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the next NASA rover will see even more gorgeous sights on Mars. The future rover will have 23 "eyes" that will allow it to see the Red Planet like never before.

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will build on the tech already used in NASA’s Curiosity, which has 17 cameras at its disposal. Each camera in the new rover will have a higher resolution, color, and wider field of view compared to those used by its predecessor.

Mars 2020 will have nine engineering cameras, seven scientific ones, and seven cameras that monitor the entry, descent, and landing. The rover will be built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, and will launch in 2020.

"Camera technology keeps improving," Justin Maki of JPL, Mars 2020's imaging scientist, said in a statement. "Each successive mission is able to utilize these improvements, with better performance and lower cost."

Notable advancements include changes to the engineering cameras that will help the rovers work out where to go (Navcams) and how to avoid hazards (Hazcam). Curiosity, Spirit, and Opportunity all have these, producing black-and-white 1-megapixel images. Mars 2020's cameras will be snapping 20-megapixel color photos.  

"Our previous Navcams would snap multiple pictures and stitch them together," said Colin McKinney of JPL, product delivery manager for the new engineering cameras. "With the wider field of view, we get the same perspective in one shot."

Artist's impression of the Mars 2020 rover and its cameras. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Changes are also coming to the main imaging cameras, which are dubbed Mastcam-Z. They will have more color and better 3-D imaging capabilities compared to Curiosity's MASTCAM. They will also have a 3:1 zoom lens (that’s the Z in the name).

"Routinely using 3-D images at high resolution could pay off in a big way," said Jim Bell of Arizona State University, Tempe, principal investigator for 2020's Mastcam-Z. "They're useful for both long-range and near-field science targets."

The mission will also have a first-time view of a parachute opening on another planet. The mission will have entry, descent, and landing cameras that will be able to film the delicate final phases of getting to Mars, as well as help the onboard system work out where to land.

The last important thing to sort out is how to get those amazing pictures back. Thankfully, rovers have gotten better and better at compressing large files, while NASA has decades of experience in using orbiters, like MAVEN or Mars Odyssey, as relays to quickly (or as quickly as possible) downlink the files collected on the ground.

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