NASA rover delivers out of this world news from tiny CCD cameras

Two 9 ounce panoramic cameras capture images from the surface of Mars. The Pancams, mounted atop the Spirit rover on a mast assembly, have the ability to pan 360 degrees and swing up or down 180 degrees. Photo courtesy NASA/JPL/Cornell University.

This week, ENG took on an otherworldly connotation when NASA's Spirit rover doubled as an "extraterrestrial newsgathering" vehicle.

News coverage, at least for a few hours, wasn't dominated by coalition action in Iraq or the impending Iowa caucus, but rather by pictures of a barren landscape from a distant, tranquil desert.

Taking those images from the surface of Mars was a pair of high-resolution CCD cameras, known in NASA parlance as Pancam, or panoramic camera, mounted atop the Spirit rover on a mast assembly. From there, the cameras have the ability to pan 360 degrees and swing up or down 180 degrees.

Together the cameras weigh about 9 ounces. They can create mosaics that are 4,000 pixels by 24,000 around.

The cameras will be used to look for areas where water once might have been, examine rocks and soil and map the location where Spirit landed.

All of the cameras on Spirit were designed, built and tested at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, JPL, in Pasadena, Calif., according to Ken Herkenhoff, payload element lead for the microscopic imager with the U.S. geological survey in Flagstaff, Ariz.

“The color filters were designed to discriminate between the iron oxides on Mars in addition to (providing) RGB (images),” said Herkenhoff.

The Spirit rover also has a microscopic imager that combines a microscope and a CCD camera to study the small features of Martian rocks and soil and six engineering cameras to help the rover avoid hazards and navigate.

According to NASA, the Pancam color imaging system is the best camera ever sent to the surface of another planet.

“We’re ecstatic with the performance of the cameras,” said Herkenhoff. “All nine of the cameras (on Spirit) have been checked out and the images are beautiful.”

Later this month, the Opportunity rover is scheduled to land on another stretch of the red planet to give scientists and the public a view of a different portion of Mars. The Opportunity rover, including the camera system, is identical to Spirit.

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