NASA Used a 2 Megapixel Camera to Capture This 1.6 Billion Pixel Panorama of Mars’ Surface

You are aware that in March 2020, NASA published the highest-resolution image of Mars yet. The image showed a landscape like a desert canyon on Earth, but Mars is very different, as evidenced by features like a three-mile-wide impact crater.

The 1.8 billion-pixel composite was produced by fusing more than 1,000 images together. The telephoto lens of the Curiosity rover’s Mast Camera (Mastcam), which is 6.5 feet above the ground, was used to take each photo between November 24 and December 1, 2019.

Now. You might be surprised to learn that Mastcam has a 2MP camera with a maximum resolution of 1600 x 1200 pixels. The Mars rover Curiosity has a 2-megapixel sensor in its main camera array despite being one of the most astounding human achievements of the past decade and costing taxpayers around $2.5 billion. Given that today’s entry-level digicams have at least 10 megapixels and “premium” versions have upwards of 40, its detail may have astonished anyone familiar with digital imaging because it is so low.

On Curiosity, a KAI-2020 sensor from TrueSense Imaging was utilized. It shoots at 1600 x 1200 and has an interline CCD. (instead of CMOS, frame transfer CCD, or full-frame CCD). Small pixels, the use of microlenses to help the pixels, rapid imaging times, and the use of an electric rather than a mechanical shutter are all characteristics of interline sensors.

Why then do you only have 2MP? The choice was made for a number of factors, some of which might not be evident at first. The distance that data must be carried across is the first and most crucial factor. Two satellites orbiting Mars receive data from the rover and transmit it back to Earth. With a daily data stream of about 256 megabits (32MB), it is not particularly large. Not only does Curiosity bring back pictures, but it also has to relay a tonne of other documents and measurements.

The following logistical challenge prevents more modern technology from being used: Since 2004 Curiosity has been in development. At the time, a 2-megapixel sensor was state-of-the-art, but it has since been surpassed. Components cannot be changed as quickly as they can on a computer, and design and testing take time. Parts need to be able to take time and resist the harsh Martian environment.

In addition, the MSL uses the 2MP sensor in four cameras rather than just one for logistical reasons. They include the two MastCams, Mars Descent Imager (MARDI), and Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). NASA was able to save certification time by using the same sensor and by avoiding the need to learn the specifics of each sensor (such as the effect of radiation on individual pixels).

The fact that nothing moves on Mars serves as the fourth and most practical justification for adopting a 2MP sensor. As a result, creating panoramas from many pictures is a simple process. This produces the same results as a camera with higher resolution, but without any drawbacks.

The KAI-2020 has the capability to record video, which is one benefit. The processor can support up to 6 frames per second and 720p HD (1280×720) if necessary.

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