Curiosity beams back 360 color panorama to Earth

While the world is busy tracking Olympics 2012 taking place in London, the actual action is happening more than 5,000 miles away. We’re sure everybody has heard of Nasa’s Curiosity rover, a robotic, car-sized Mars rover currently exploring Gale Crater, near the equator of Mars. The rover is a nuclear powered, mobile scientific laboratory and part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission by the United States. After slamming into the Martian atmosphere at 13,200mph with its heat shield glowing due to friction with the surroundings that heated it up to hundreds of degrees, the rover made a successful landing last Sunday and has been collecting photographs ever since. Curiosity’s successful landing has rescued Nasa’s space programme from death, and will be a giant leap forward in human race’s understanding of the Red Planet

In an ever growing collection of photos from the Red Planet, the newest addition is a 360 degree panorama of the martian landscape. Now that the dust from landing has settled, the lens cap that is supposed to keep dust off is being removed one by one. This photo has been obtained from the highest resolution navigational camera on board, thought the degree of color accuracy is still unknown. Under the hood, the rover has 17 2-megapixel cameras, including the MastCam which can take 720p video at 10fps, and swivel to take 360 degree panoramic images of the surface. The image posted above is taken from one of the MastCam. The rover’s other 2-megapixel cameras, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), will be doing the job of clicking close ups of minerals in hard to reach places, and the camera can also rotate in order to click its own shot. The rover was previously proposed to have a 3D camera on board, and apparently James Cameron, the maker of hit movies like Avatar and Titanic, was behind this proposal. The 3D camera was reportedly cut from the rover design previously due to various concerns, including bandwidth required to transmit 3D movies that James Cameron had wanted.

2 megapixel cameras sounds pretty low tech for a project that has cost the taxpayers $2.5 billion. The reason behind this includes the rover’s long developmental period and limitations on the transmission of interplanetary data. The development work on Curiosity’s cameras commenced back in 2004, and 2 megapixel then wasn’t exactly low tech as it is now. The camera specifications called for an 8 gig on board flash memory, which is a little considering the project’s 2 year mission.

The 2 MP camera creates images that are small enough so that thousands of photos are stored in Curiosity’s onboard memory. Better camera could have been put on board, however, NASA had already approved the proposal for 2 MP camera and hence the company behind the camera couldn’t develop something else. Other major issue is the interplanetary data transmission. The Curiosity forwards its data using its UHF antenna to two satellites which are currently orbiting Mars — the former Mars Reconnaissance and Mars Odyssey orbiters – and these satellites beam back the data to Earth at a rate of 128 Kbps, which is very slow considering today’s standard. This speed gives NASA a bandwidth of 250 megabits per day which has to be shared between various components, hence not much bandwidth is left over for the cameras on board and bandwidth is at premium.

There are three ways for Curiosity, to broadcast data back to Earth – but it’s only the UHF transmitter that can be used for transmitting the amounts of data required for sending back images. ‘The UHF antenna transmits to two spacecraft orbiting Mars, which relay the results back to Earth. That’s where most of the data is coming from. It gives us on the order of 250 megabits per day, and that’s got to be shared between a bunch of instruments, so there’s not much bandwidth for the cameras.’ Malin Space Science Systems’ Mike Ravine explains.

If you are curious about what computer system Curiosity has on board, it is a RAD750, a single-board computer that has been developed by BAE systems. RAD750 has been previously used on spacecraft such as Deep Impact and the Kepler telescope. The computer uses a PowerPC 750 CPU which is clocked at 200MHz. With 265MB of RAM, it doesn’t have a lot of computing muscle, but enough to accomplish the tasks that it is supposed to complete. The computer uses VxWorks software, which is also used on Honda’s Asimo robot, BMW iDrive systems, and Apple’s Airport Extreme. All of the rover’s electricals are powered by 10.6 pounds of plutonium dioxide, which is a common component of space missions and delivers a little more than 100 watts of electricity from the heat generated due to isotope’s decay.

In addition to the color photograph that was released recently, NASA has also released a “3D” photograph taken by the rover’s dual camera setup. You will need red/green glasses to view the 3D photo below, which will give you a look of martian landscape in three dimensions.

The metal and plastic that you see in the above picture is actually part of the Curiosity rover. The on board cameras are able to look down in order to monitor the stuff that is going around the rover. Below is a video compiled by NASA which shows the sequence of the rover heading towards the red planet.

“The movie begins with a global image from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, then switches to views from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. As we zoom closer and closer into Gale Crater, the components of Curiosity’s landing system come into view: The heat shield was the first piece to hit the ground, followed by the back shell attached to the parachute, then the rover itself touched down, and finally, after cables were cut, the sky crane flew away to the northwest and crashed” – NASA

For fans of this mission, there’s a free game called Mars Rover Landing for Microsoft Xbox Kinect and uses the Kinect accessory for control. The game is to promote the landing of the Curiosity rover. NASA has even gone ahead and collaborated with Mattel toys to create a Hot Wheels rover. For iOS users, there’s a free app from NASA for iPhone and iPad called Spacecraft 3D which is designed to show off various NASA spacecraft using 3-D animation.

Much more high resolution shots will be coming this week. NASA will continue publishing all the shots as they explore the crater. What will be your reaction if they do find life on Mars? Let us know your thoughts using the comment form below.

Sources: 1, 2

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