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Perseverance rover’s zooming cameras can capture 3D images of Mars landscape

We’re heading into the last few months before the launch of NASA’s Perseverance rover on its journey to explore Mars. It has already had the cameras which will image the Martian landscape installed and tested, but it will also have a new function that previous Mars rovers have not: The ability to zoom in on particular parts of the landscape using cameras attached to the rover’s mast, called Mastcam-Z (Z for zoom).

A close-up of the head of Perseverance Rover's remote sensing mast
A close-up of the head of Perseverance Rover’s remote sensing mast. The masthead contains the SuperCam instrument (its lens is in the large circular opening). In the gray boxes beneath masthead are the two Mastcam-Z imagers. On the exterior sides of those imagers are the rover’s two navigation cameras. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Mastcam-Z is an upgrade on previous rover Curiosity’s Mastcam, which was launched in 2011. Curiosity’s cameras have captured some impressive images, but they are not able to zoom as the engineers couldn’t find a way to shrink the zoom technology small enough to make it fit on the Mastcam.

“The original plan was for Curiosity to have a zoom camera that could go out to an extreme wide angle like a spaghetti western view,” Jim Bell of Arizona State University, principal investigator for Perseverance’s Mastcam-Z and deputy principal investigator for Curiosity’s Mastcam, said in a statement. “It would have been an amazing panoramic perspective but proved really hard to build at the time.”

In the end, Curiosity was armed with one telephoto lens and one wide-angle lens, and was able to capture 3D-type stereo images using a combination of the two cameras. But this process is something of a hassle, as nine telescopic images are required to match up to one wide-angle shot.

To achieve the same stereo function on Perseverance in a simpler way, both cameras can zoom independently. So each camera can be adjusted until it matches the required zoom, and the results can easily be combined into a stereo image.

As well as being used for 3D imaging of the landscape to assist the drivers of the rover in their route planning, the cameras will also be used to capture images and mosaics of the views to be shared with the public. This includes a website where amateur enthusiasts can share images created from their own data analyses. “It’s important that the public have a sense of ownership,” Bell said. “The Mastcam-Z images belong to all of us.”

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