One billion pixels, two remarkable images

CuriosityThe news coming out of NASA about the Mars Science Laboratory has slowed somewhat following the period of solar conjunction which formed a natural break in operations during April.

As I’ve mentioned before, there is nothing surprising in this – the news operates in cycles, and NASA is only too aware that trying to keep Curiosity as a headline item isn’t going to stick. Better than to keep the mission going at both ends of the divide – Earth and Mars – as report to the media when there is significant news to report.

And it is fair to say that mission personnel have a lot of data to analyse. Not only are there the results of the recent sample gathering from the “Cumberland” rock to comb through, there is still a wealth of data covering the rover’s first ten months on Mars which is growing daily as a part of its automatic monitoring of its environment as well as all the data gathered during the flight from Earth to Mars which has already renewed concerns about the long-term health of humans attempting a mission to Mars, as I reported last time around.

In the meantime, Curiosity’s extraordinary ability to capture images and video of the surface of Mars has come in for attention.

The primary reason for this the release of the “billion pixel image” of the “Rocknest” region of Gale Crater, where Curiosity spent some time in 2012 after departing its landing site at Bradbury Landing, and was the location where the rover’s scoop was first tested and samples of Martian soil were first analysed by the rover.

Actually comprising some 1.3 billion pixels, the image brings together over 900 images primarily captured by the rover’s Mastcam telephoto lens (some 850 in all), although some wide-angle shots from the second Mastcam lens (21) are also included, as are 25 frames captured by the mast-mounted black-and-white Navcams. Together, the images form a full-circle view of Gale Crater as seen from “Rocknest”, providing a unique insight into the environment.

Curiosity's remote sensing mast, seen fully deployed prior to launch in 2011
The top of Curiosity’s mast, highlighting the colour Mastcam lenses and the black-and-white Navcam lenses

The finished product has been made available on a NASA website in two formats, both of which allow you to study the surface of Mars, panning and zooming freely, or using a selection of pre-selected images to quick zoom in on features of interest. The two versions of the mosaic can be found as follows:

Of the two, the cylindrical view is potentially the more engrossing, offering a greater number of images for zooming-in on surface features as well as a an easier means of panning and zooming freehand.

The images making up the mosaic were gathered between October 5th and November 26th, 2012. As a result, the individual images show variations in both illumination and clarity of the atmosphere, reflecting the different times of day when they were captured and the varying atmospheric conditions during the month in which they were obtained. By default, the images are shown white-balanced – that is, they are colours and lit as if seen in normal Earth daylight conditions. However, both versions of the mosaic have an option which allows you to switch to the “raw” images  – that is, directly as they were captured by the camera systems – allowing you to view Mars exactly as Curiosity sees it.

A part of the raw image version of the "billion pixel" "Rocknest" moasaic, with "Mount Sharp" on the horizon
A part of the raw image version of the “billion pixel” “Rocknest” mosaic, with “Mount Sharp” on the horizon

Commenting on the mosaic, Bob Deen, who works at JPL’s Multi-Mission Image Processing Laboratory and who assembled it said, “It gives a sense of place and really shows off the cameras’ capabilities. You can see the context and also zoom in to see very fine details.”

It’s a remarkable mosaic, and one very much worth looking at.

Cameras in Close-up

My MSL updates have included news and information about all of Curiosity’s imaging systems. However, the truth is, with seventeen different camera systems on the rover (some of them grouped by function), it is hard to keep track of everything. To help with this, and as a part of their routine video updates, the mission team at JPL have put together a little video explaining the various camera systems.

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