It’s not easy to get a car-sized robot to another planet, so NASA is making the most of the exceedingly reliable Curiosity rover. The next generation Perseverance rover (previously known only as Mars 2020) will be on its way to the red planet soon, but Curiosity is still setting records. NASA just released the largest panorama ever captured on Mars thanks to the plucky rover, consisting of 1.8 billion pixels.
Unlike robots, the team at NASA needs time off on occasion. During the Thanksgiving holiday, they set Curiosity to start taking photos using its MastCam instrument, a visible light camera with a resolution of 1600 x 1200. The team also roped in the MasCam’s lower-resolution medium-angle lens to add the rover’s deck and robotic arm to the 360-degree image. You can see the rim of Gale Crater, the peak of Mount Sharp, Central Butte, and even the rover’s tracks in the panorama.
Those cameras are both, of course, much lower resolution than the final image, but the rover remained stationary from November 24th to December 1st of last year. It took more than 1,000 individual images to get all the image data, and the team has been working to assemble the final panorama over the last few months. Curiosity spent about six and a half hours taking the photos. The program set up by mission control required the robot to carefully maneuver its arm to ensure the photos remained in focus and only capture images between noon and 2 PM Mars time each day to keep lighting consistent.
Curiosity broke its own record with this image. Back in 2013, the rover generated a 1.3 billion pixel image from both MastCam cameras and the monochrome navigation cameras. The rover didn’t have as much time to capture the frames for that image, so the results weren’t nearly as pretty as the new panorama.
Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012 and was only designed to operate for 668 Martian days. It’s currently on day 2,695, and NASA has extended the mission indefinitely. It’s entirely possible that Curiosity will still be rolling around Gale Crater long after the Perseverance rover arrives. That mission will launch in July 2020 and should touch down on Mars in February 2021. While it’s based on Curiosity, Perseverance has stronger wheels and more instruments to help it search for signs of life on the red planet. Its MastCam-Z should be able to take even better panoramas than Curiosity, too.
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