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ASU’s 'Mastcam-Z' cameras installed on the NASA Mars 2020 rover

The ASU-tested cameras will provide the rover with the first zoom lenses on Mars


mast cam z

In the assembly facility's Bay 1 cleanroom at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, engineers re-install the cover to the remote sending mast after integrating the two Mastcam-Z high-definition cameras. Visible below the red lens cover is the left Mastcam-Z camera (with the "Remove Before Flight" labels); support equipment blocks the right Mastcam-Z from view. The mast and its twin cameras were installed on the rover's deck the first week of June 2019. Photo by NASA/JPL

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June 14, 2019

The Arizona State University-led mast-mounted camera system for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover mission, "Mastcam-Z," achieved a major milestone recently when the instrument was delivered to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the cameras were officially installed on the rover’s mast.

Mastcam-Z is a dual camera system that can zoom in (hence the "Z"), focus and take 3D pictures and panoramas at a variety of scales. This will allow the Mars 2020 rover to provide a detailed examination of both close and distant objects on Mars.

"Mastcam-Z will be the first Mars color camera that can zoom, enabling 3D images at unprecedented resolution," said Mastcam-Z principal investigator Jim Bell, of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.  

The two cameras are now mounted on the Mars 2020 rover mast at the eye level of a 6-foot-6-inch person. They are separated by 9.5 inches to provide stereo vision and they will produce images of color quality similar to that of a consumer digital HD camera (2 megapixels).

“It's a bittersweet feeling for our team, kind of like sending a child off to college, because we'll never be as close to them as we have been over the past few years,” Bell said. “During testing and calibration we showed that the cameras work spectacularly well — meeting or exceeding all of their performance requirements. Now they are heading off to their new home high atop the Mars 2020 rover, which will soon head off to its new home — Jezero crater, on Mars.”

The cameras are designed to help other Mars 2020 experiments on the rover by looking at the whole landscape and identifying rocks and soil (regolith) that deserve a closer look by other instruments. They will also spot important rocks for the rover to sample and cache on the surface of Mars, for eventual return to Earth by a future mission.

The cameras are now in “ATLO” which stands for Assembly, Test and Launch Operations. This phase of the Mars 2020 mission is where the rover is assembled, tested and prepared for launch.

“It was a surreal experience to see these cameras follow in the footsteps of so many great instruments and missions,” said Andy Winhold, ASU Mastcam-Z calibration engineer. “To know that the cameras were bound for JPL's Spacecraft Assembly Facility where the Mars 2020 rover is being assembled adds a historical and human significance to the whole experience. The facility itself is just a giant room stocked with tools and engineers, but when you bring in the hard work, care and passion of all those involved, the process carries a weight you can feel.”

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    A photo taken by one of the flight cameras shows, left to right: Andy Winhold, Justin Maki, Jim Bell and Alex Hayes. Bell is holding a mirror reflecting the faces of additional team members looking into the cleanroom window from the data analysis room outside.

    Photo: Mastcam-Z Team/ASU

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    Principal Investigator Jim Bell looks into the vacuum chamber at Malin Space Science Systems, where the flight cameras were tested. The front surfaces of both cameras are visible behind the vacuum chamber window.

    Photo: Elsa Jensen/Malin Space Science Systems

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    In the foreground is the flight Mastcam-Z camera that will be the "right eye" of the rover. The "left eye" (identical from the outside, but with different color filters inside) is in the background. Each camera is about the size of a typical tennis ball canister.

    Photo: Briony Horgan/Purdue University

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    One of the flight Mastcam-Z cameras is taking photos of a test device called an integrating sphere. This device is designed to send a highly uniform light of a well-calibrated amplitude into each camera, so the team can determine its sensitivity accurately. The brightness is set to the same level expected for typical sunlit scenes on Mars.

    Photo: Christian Tate/Cornell University

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    Using its 34mm wide-angle zoom setting, the Mastcam-Z flight left camera took a photo of the GeoBoard. This carries an assortment of calibration targets, plus geologic samples chosen for color and texture. The goal is to put the cameras' capabilities to the test. The GeoBoard is about as far away from the camera as typical outcrop rocks might be on Mars.

    Photo: Mastcam-Z Team/ASU

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    Here the camera's 100mm telephoto zoom setting provides a high-resolution photo showing part of the GeoBoard. This gives an example of the expected image quality for nearby rocks, soils, layers and outcrops on Mars with the camera near its highest zoom resolution.

    Photo: Mastcam-Z Team/ASU

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    On June 5, 2019, engineers and technicians take a moment after attaching the remote sensing mast to the Mars 2020 rover in the spacecraft assembly facility's High Bay 1 cleanroom at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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    The Mastcam-Z team

    Bell leads the Mastcam-Z team, which includes dozens of scientists, engineers, operations specialists, managers and students at ASU. In addition, the team includes deputy principal investigator Justin Maki of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory; the Planetary Society, which serves as the instrument’s education and public outreach partner; and Malin Space Science Systems, Inc., the prime subcontractor for instrument development.

    Malin Space Science Systems, Inc. is, in turn, supported by expertise from their subcontractors at Motiv Space Systems, who worked on the instrument’s zoom, focus, and filter wheel mechanisms; Synopsys Optical Solutions Group, who worked on the optics design; Ghaemi Optical Engineering, who worked on the optics assembly; and Materion Precision Optics, who worked on the filters.

    In addition, scientists and engineers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark have been responsible for the design and testing of the Mastcam-Z calibration targets, which were recently delivered to JPL and will be mounted onto the rover's deck in the next few weeks.

    “We first dreamed up the Mastcam-Z cameras more than six years ago when we sent in our proposal to NASA,” Bell said. “Initially the cameras existed only as PowerPoint slides, CAD models and spreadsheets. Then, with this team, the cameras started becoming real, physical objects that we could take real photos with. Now we've reached the next step, delivering them to JPL to be mounted on the rover.”

    About the Mars 2020 Mission

    Mars 2020 will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in July 2020, landing on Mars in Jezero Crater in February 2021. The mission is expected to last at least one Mars year (687 Earth days). JPL is building and will manage operations of the Mars 2020 rover for the NASA Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington.

    The mission is part of NASA's Mars Exploration Program, a long-term effort of robotic exploration of the Red Planet. The mission addresses high-priority science goals for Mars exploration, including key questions about the potential for life on Mars. The mission also seeks to gather knowledge and to demonstrate technologies that address the challenges of future human expeditions to Mars. These include testing a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, identifying other resources (such as subsurface water), improving landing techniques, and characterizing weather, dust and other potential environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars.

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