Emily LakdawallaMar 26, 2010

Happy, happy day: We may see the right MastCam on MSL after all

I heard some absolutely terrific news about the MSL mission yesterday. It was reported by Air and Space Magazine that it is possible -- though not yet certain -- that the next, great Mars rover may fly with its originally planned stereo camera system, capable of zooming in on distant targets and of capturing not just still but motion pictures of its traverses across Mars in 3D, HD resolution. (To be specific, the video capability is 720p, that is, 1280 by 720 pixels, at 10 frames per second.)

This is how it was supposed to be. But in 2007, during one of MSL's many budget crises, NASA directed the mission (or, more accurately, the camera's developer, Malin Space Science Systems) to "descope" MastCam's zoom capability in order to save $1.5 million, leaving it with one zoomed-in and one zoomed-out camera. Now, I'm not party to any of the decision-making processes on NASA missions and I understand that there are lots of factors involved in any decision; but I could never find any sense in that decision. It would have created operational challenges by making it harder to generate the 3D views that the drivers and scientists use for planning their next moves, and it gutted one of the rover's greatest public outreach capabilities, the ability to use that exquisite camera system to generate 3D movies; it seemed to me that more value would be lost from and costs added to the mission than would be saved. Director James Cameron (winner of The Planetary Society's first Cosmos Award for Public Presentation of Science) was, and still is, actually part of the MastCam science team, and it was obvious why he was there -- to be involved in the acquisition, processing, and most important, distribution to the public of what should be stunning motion pictures from Mars. The first ever movies from Mars. Losing that really, really hurt.

So I am beyond delighted to read in the Air and Space article that, in part because of Cameron's advocacy, Malin Space Science Systems, having already provided the descoped version of MastCam to the mission, is now building another MastCam to the originally proposed design. It has to be done by December. But I am confident those guys can do it.

The Time is Now.

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