February 20, 2019

Mars Rover leaves rich photo library thanks to lenses designed with OpticStudio

Mars Rover leaves rich photo library thanks to lenses designed with OpticStudio

For 15 years, the Mars Opportunity Rover has captured photos—and our fascination—using cameras designed using OpticStudio. The rover was designed for 90 days of exploration but exceeded all expectations by operating for more than 5,000 Martian days—now the longest-lasting robot on another planet.

During its time on the Martian surface as a robotic geologist, Opportunity took more than 210,000 pictures. The Spirit Rover also took 125,000 photos on the other side of the planet. Some were microscopic close-ups, while others were 360-degree panoramas.

“When the first images popped up on the monitors, the scientists were flabbergasted,” according to the New York Times. “Opportunity, cocooned in a sphere of protective airbags, had by pure chance, rolled into one of the few craters in Meridiani Planum—an interplanetary hole-in-one.”

The camera system

“A major part of a rover's scientific and engineering equipment are its cameras (its electronic eyes),” said Gregory Hallock Smith, the rover lens designer who used OpticStudio at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. “On each rover, there is a total of 9 cameras, each having one of four different lens types. The cameras serve two functions. First, they allow people on Earth to see what is out there for scientific evaluation and discovery. Second, the operation of the rovers combines Earth-based control and target selection with on-board autonomous navigation.”

The four types of cameras on board the rovers include:

  • The Panoramic Camera (PanCam)

  • The Navigation Camera (NavCam)

  • The Hazard Avoidance Camera (HazCam)

  • The Microscopic Imager for close-up views

Challenges in designing the lenses were due to the cameras needing to be small and effective while also being able to survive the trip to Mars and the environment on the surface. To do this, they needed the least number of lens elements necessary which led to only two types of optical glass, with all optical surfaces spherical or flat. No cemented surfaces were allowed due to the cold, and there could be no mechanical shutters, variable aperture stops, or refocusing to avoid malfunctions. Plus, no mechanical vignetting was allowed.

Dependent on solar power, the Mars Opportunity Rover has now been powered off by a global dust storm, but the rich trove of information gleaned from the photographs enabled by the camera lenses designed with OpticStudio continues to inspire us. And with Curiosity continuing to explore, NASA has a new rover in the works that will make Mars home in 2020.


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