Look closer

NASA's next Mars rover is getting eyes humans can only dream of

The Perseverance rover's pair of cameras will include infrared and ultraviolet sensors along with the ability to zoom.


NASA will be sending a new rover to Mars this summer. Dubbed the Perseverance, the space agency says its Mastcam-Z camera rig will feature the most advanced tech ever sent to the Red Planet. One big change is that the rover's two navigation cameras will now be able to zoom.

The existing Curiosity rover — that's been traversing the Martian surface since 2011— was supposed to have zoom lenses, but the feat proved too difficult to achieve in its small camera body back when it was built. That's not a problem today. NASA says zooming will enable scientists to capture even better panoramas and assist rover operators in choosing the safest navigation path across the rugged terrain.

"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." Because camera technology sent to Mars can't be serviced it has to be rigorously tested beforehand and meet exacting standards. Moving parts are risky because they can always get stuck.


One giant leap for rover-kind — Because Mars rovers are remotely operated, Curiosity's operators plan out driving routes by looking at stereoscopic 3D images taken by the robots two navigation cameras. To create an ultrawide view of the landscape, shots taken from both cameras are stitched together, and operators look at the resulting pictures with 3D goggles.

But one of the cameras on Curiosity is a wide-angle lens while the other is a telephoto. To get the widest view possible, the telephoto lens has to take multiple, separate images at slightly different angles to match what the wide-angle lens captures. That means more pictures must be sent all the way back to Earth and stitched together, which can take a long time.

The new cameras will be able to extend their lenses to the same zoom length, thus requiring fewer images to produce a wide-angle image.

An image stitched together from the Mars Curiosity rover.

The cameras in Mastcam-Z will also sport infrared and ultraviolet sensing so that scientists can better analyze the rover's surroundings for anything that might help us expand our understanding of Mars. Infrared could help reveal spacial information difficult to see with the naked eye, like hints that a rock, say, fell from a neighboring cliffside or came from an ancient Martian stream, perhaps.

Let's get excited about space again — NASA hopes that not only will the new cameras help with scientific advances, but they'll also produce stunning panoramas that get the public excited about space. "The vistas that Perseverance will send back from its landing site, Jezero Crater, will be just as significant for those who work on the mission and everyone who's following along," the agency said in an article. As it does with Curiosity, NASA plans on sharing images taken by Perseverance on a public site.

Perseverance is expected to land on Mars somewhere around February 18, 2021.

Another image from the Curiosity rover.