Curiosity's Camera Project Manager Explains Why MSL Used "Archaic" 2 MP Cameras
August 9, 2012 1:33 PM
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Mike Ravine, Advanced Projects Manager for Malin Space Science Systems
A two-image panorama shot with the rover's 1024 x 1024 mono navigation cameras
Reasons included the amount of data produced, the fact that they had to meet the needs of different cameras, and the team's familiarity with these sensors
NASA recently accomplished a huge feat by landing its
Mars rover Curiosity
on the Red Planet, but one of the questions on the minds of many was why such a sophisticated machine used 2 MP cameras.
Mike Ravine, a project manager from Malin Space Science Systems, was happy to answer that in an interview with
Digital Photography Review
. He said the main reasons for using 2 MP sensors in the cameras were the amount of data produced, the fact that they had to meet the needs of different cameras, and the team's familiarity with these sensors.
"There's a popular belief that projects like this are going to be very advanced, but there are things that mitigate against that," said Ravine. "These designs were proposed in 2004, and you don't get to propose one specification then go off and develop something else. Two MP with 8 GB of flash didn't sound too bad in 2004. But it doesn't compare well to what you get in an iPhone today."
The amount of data produced is a large reason for using 2 MP cameras. There just isn't enough bandwidth for anything more powerful because the cameras must share with other instruments. Curiosity sends data back to Earth via the UHF transmitter, which transmits to two spacecraft orbiting Mars. The data is then sent back to Earth, and this system only allows for 250 megabits per day to be shared amongst various instruments.
The 2 MP camera sensors also were the tools of choice for the use of four different cameras, including the MAHLI, MARDI and two Mastcams. Having four different sensors for each camera would be expensive and more difficult to maintain rather than having one type of sensor all across the board.
The team's familiarity with the sensors was crucial, too. The team knew the behavior of Truesense imaging chips and Kodak's KAI-2020 chip, so it makes sense that they'd work with what they know.
"We know how to clock them and drive them," said Ravine. "They're a very easy CCD to drive."
Other issues, like the low pixel count, are not an issue either since the two Mastcams will create images from multiple exposures.
NASA rover Curiosity landed successfully on Mars
earlier this week after launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida on November 26, 2011. Curiosity is a one-ton, nuclear-powered, Mini Cooper-sized science laboratory that will explore the Martian surface for the next two years.
Digital Photography Review
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RE: Still no reason why they couldn't put 8MP
8/12/2012 5:40:36 AM
Some guy claims to work for kodak...I guess we better believe him since this is the internet.
That being said I agree with most of what you said except you're downplaying the value if resolution a bit too much.
The better the lens' optical resolving capabilities, the more a high resolution sensor will benefit and a lower resolution sensor will experience diffraction...and even average lenses have higher optical resolution than 2 MP.
Quantum efficiency is more or less at its practical limit for current sensor technology, and higher sensor resolution does not necessarily translate to additional weight or power consumption.
The main benefit of a lower resolution sensor would be the ability to consolidate the an image processing ASIC onto the chip itself and thus simplify the overall design of the system...but a higher resolution sensor would yield more detail per shot. It really boils down to whether they want a lot of "ok" pics or fewer high-res pics...in exploration I'd opt for the most detail that's practical because we have missed potential discoveries in the past due to basic resolving limitations of our equipment.
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