NASA’s latest Mars rover — Perseverance — is its most advanced to date, carrying with it a plethora of technology that includes a suite of 23 cameras.
We’ve already been treated to incredible footage from several of the cameras, captured as the rover approached the surface of the red planet on February 18, 2021. Within minutes of arriving at its landing site inside Jezero Crater, Perseverance also beamed several still images back to Earth, followed a few days later by its first high-quality pictures showing its new surroundings in astonishing detail.
As the cameras are set to play a key role in the rover’s two-year mission, we thought it would be a neat idea to find out a little more about the technology behind each device, and what we can expect from them as Perseverance sets about exploring the distant planet for signs of past life.
Main role: Capture imagery both upwards and downwards during the rover’s descent through the Martian atmosphere.
The spacecraft carrying Perseverance used more than four high-definition cameras to capture the precarious descent to the surface of Mars. The footage (below) offered easily the best visuals of any of NASA’s five Mars landings to date, with the cameras carefully positioned to capture as much of the ride down as possible.
And the footage wasn’t just for the purpose of wowing space fans. It also provided engineers with vital information on precisely how the landing system behaved, which should help them design better spacecraft for future Mars missions.
Parachute “up-look” cameras
These were mounted on the backshell of the spacecraft and pointed upward to capture parachute deployment and inflation. The footage offered engineers their first-ever look at how a parachute behaves in the thin Martian environment, enabling them to enhance the design for future missions.
Descent-stage “down-look” camera
Located on the spacecraft’s descent stage, this camera faced downward to capture footage of the rover being lowered by cables onto the Martian surface, though in the final moments, the vehicle was obscured by dust kicked up by the descent stage’s thrusters.
Rover “up-look” camera
Fixed to the deck of the rover, this upward-facing camera captured the descent stage during the crucial final moments prior to touchdown. Again, all of this footage will be useful by engineers designing future Mars spacecraft, one of which will bring the first astronauts to Mars.
Rover “down-look” camera
This camera was mounted beneath the rover and pointed straight at the ground. It recorded the effect of the descent stage’s thrusters on the dusty surface as the vehicle touched down.
Perseverance is NASA’s fifth Mars rover and arguably its most clever so far. Part of the new kit includes a new generation of engineering cameras (HazCam/NavCam/CacheCam) that will scan the ground for hazards, monitor the condition of the rover’s hardware, and support the collection of samples. The enhanced engineering cameras have the same camera body design, but each one has different lenses that are specifically designed for a unique task.
HazCams (Hazard Cameras)
Main role: Aid autonomous navigation
It was one of the rover’s six HazCams that beamed back the first images (below) from Perseverance following its dramatic landing on the red planet in February 2021. It also captured the moment the descent stage performed a controlled crash landing shortly after delivering Perseverance to the Martian surface.
With Mars slightly out of range for AAA, the last thing NASA needs is for Perseverance to get stuck in a sand dune or drive into a rock. That’s where the HazCams come in. With four on the front and two on the back, these cameras are constantly looking out for any obstacles that appear in the rover’s path as it trundles across the surface of Mars.
Computer software automatically analyzes the HazCams’ 3D imagery and then uses this information to autonomously decide where to go. These self-driving smarts allow Perseverance to proceed without having to constantly consult team members back on Earth, though it’s the team that ultimately decides the rover’s main direction of travel over the course of its mission.
The HazCams also perform another vital role by helping engineers decide where to move Perseverance’s robotic arm when taking measurements and photos.
NavCams (Navigation Cameras)
Main role: Aid autonomous navigation
Perseverance has two color stereo Navigation Cameras, or NavCams for short. They’re located about 16.5 inches (42 cm) apart at the top of the rover’s central mast and are part of the equipment that help the vehicle drive autonomously. According to NASA, the NavCams are advanced enough to spot an object as small as a golf ball from 82 feet (25 meters) away. They’re also providing some pretty awesome panoramas, like the one above captured just a few days into its Mars mission.
Main role: Take detailed images of gathered rock samples after they’ve been placed inside a sample tube.
The CacheCam is located inside the rover’s underbelly at the top of the sample cache. It’ll be used to take pictures of rock and soil placed inside sample tubes by Perseverance during its explorations, with some of the material likely to be brought back to Earth during a future mission. The CacheCam will also enable scientists to keep a record of the type of material they’re gathering from the martian surface.
Perseverance’s advanced science cameras include Mastcam-Z, SuperCam, PIXL, SHERLOC, and Watson. Each one is designed to perform vital work that could help to determine if there was once life on Mars.
Main role: Take high-definition video, panoramic color photos, and 3D images of the Martian surface and features in the atmosphere
Mastcam-Z comprises two cameras (positioned between the NavCams) that offer a 360-degree view of the surroundings. It also includes a zoom function (yes, the “Z” stands for zoom,), though it’s rather more advanced than the one on your smartphone camera. In fact, according to NASA, Mastcam-Z “can see features as small as a housefly — all the way from a distance that’s about the length of a soccer field.”
Made up of 142 separate shots all taken by Mastcam-Z, the image below gives you a good idea of Mastcam-Z’s impressive power. Try hitting the “+” button to zoom in for greater detail, or go here to take the image full-screen.
With amazing technology like this, Mastcam-Z is also able to help scientists decide which areas merit further investigation in NASA’s search for evidence of past life.
Main role: Identify the chemical composition of rocks and soils, including their atomic and molecular makeup.
Befitting of its name, the SuperCam is mounted at the very top of Perseverance’s mast, and contains some very impressive smarts. For starters, it’s capable of firing a laser, though thankfully it won’t be aiming at any martians we might come across. Instead, the laser will focus on mineral targets that the rover’s robotic arm is unable to reach.
When firing onto a tiny area of rock from a distance of around 20 feet (7 meters), the laser will cause the formation of a hot gas made up of free-floating ions and electrons. The SuperCam will then analyze the vaporized rock to discover its elemental composition. This procedure has the potential to uncover organic compounds that could also link to past life on Mars.
PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry)
Main role: Measure the chemical makeup of rocks at a very fine scale
PIXL is found at the end of the rover’s robotic arm and uses X-rays to identify chemical elements in target spots that NASA says can be as small as a grain of table salt. PIXL includes a Micro-Context Camera that will provide images to help it correlate its elemental composition maps with visible characteristics of the target area.
SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals)
Main role: Fine-scale detection of minerals, organic molecules, and potential biosignatures
SHERLOC, which is also located at the end of Perseverance’s robotic arm, incorporates cameras, spectrometers, and a laser. The device is looking for organics and minerals that have been altered by watery environments as it searches for signs of past microbial life. SHERLOC is also playing a key role in research into new spacesuits for the first human mission to Mars.
WATSON (Wide Angle Topographic Sensor for Operations and Engineering)
Main role: Take close-up pictures of rock textures
With names like SHERLOC and WATSON, you don’t have to be a super-sleuth to work out that these two cameras are working together during the Mars mission.
Like SHERLOC, WATSON is also found at the end of the rover’s robotic arm. The color camera is designed to provide scientists with data on the textures and structures of Martian rocks. “WATSON captures the images that bridge the scale from the very detailed images and maps that SHERLOC collects of Martian minerals and organics, to the broader scales that SuperCam and Mastcam-Z observe from the mast,” NASA said.
With so many cameras and other scientific equipment aboard the rover, Perseverance is certain to make some fascinating discoveries as it explores the martian surface during its two-year mission. So be sure to check back for updates.