Perseverance rover’s zoomable camera checks out on Red Planet

The Perseverance rover’s Mastcam-Z instrument took this picture of the Martian horizon Tuesday, March 30. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Scientists have confirmed the first zoomable camera on Mars is in top-top shape since arriving aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover in February, adding a long-distance survey capability to the robot’s scientific toolkit.

The zoomable imaging instrument, which is actually composed of two nearly identical cameras to provide stereo views, is now ready to capture high-definition video of the Ingenuity helicopter’s first flight in the Martian atmosphere later this month.

The Mastcam-Z instrument (the Z stands for Zoom) is an upgraded version of the cameras on the mast of NASA’s Curiosity rover, adding the capability to focus and zoom in on rocks across the Martian surface.

Within days of Perseverance’s landing Feb. 18, Mastcam-Z took pictures at a range of zoom settings. Jim Bell, Mastcam-Z’s principal investigator at Arizona State University, said last month it was “very exciting” to use the instrument early in the mission to prove everything was working as expected.

“Obviously, science team members were very quickly drooling over all these images,” Bell said March 16 in a presentation at the 52nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

Scientists used the Mastcam-Z cameras to take pictures of a calibration target to confirm the instrument’s settings, then captured wide-angle and telephoto views of the surrounding landscape at Jezero Crater, Perseverance’s landing site.

Mastcam-Z takes pictures that scientists back on Earth can stitch together to create mosaics, providing high-resolution panoramic views 360 degrees across the horizon, with a 180-degree field of view from straight down to straight up. The cameras have an effective focal length ranging from 26 millimeters to 110 millimeters.

The Mastcam-Z instrument’s zoom capability is well illustrated in this image of the Perseverance rover’s tracks on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

Bell said the science team tested Mastcam-Z’s resolution by aiming the cameras at Martian rocks near the rover. Fully zoomed in, the cameras can resolve features as small as the tip of a pencil near the rover, or as small as an almond from a football field away, scientists said.

“We can also do that in stereo,” Bell said. “We match the eyes from wide angle all the way to telephoto, (which is) kind of an advancement over what the Mastcam can can do on Curiosity,” Bell said. “But the system is very, very similar, also designed and built in collaboration and operate in collaboration with Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego.”

Mastcam-Z’s cameras have color filters that can give scientists hints about the composition of distant rocks. Bell likened Mastcam-Z’s role on the mission as “doing triage” to help the rover science team select targets for higher-fidelity spectrometers and other instruments.

At its highest zoom setting, Mastcam-Z was able to see details in the edge of delta deposits laid down by a dried-up river that flowed into a lake that filled Jezero Crater billions of years ago. The delta sediments, more than a mile from the rover’s current location, are a primary target for Perseverance, and scientists hope to find signatures of ancient life there.

“We’ll eventually get closer to these, and of course, get better resolution than we’re getting,” Bell said. At the rover’s current distance a few kilometers from the delta, Bell said Mastcam-Z can resolve features with sizes of a basketball to a beach ball.

Bell said Mastcam-Z will be used for science and rover operations.

“We’re doing all of the kinds of geomorphology, geology, atmospheric science, some astronomical observations … color multispectral imaging for science, but we’re also doing a lot of engineering support for driving and (robot) arm placement and helicopter operations,” Bell said.

Mastcam-Z can also capture high-definition videos, a capability Bell says will be put to use with the test flights of NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter later this month.

The Ingenuity helicopter deployed its final two landing legs Tuesday, March 30. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Perseverance rover released the 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) rotorcraft onto the Martian surface Saturday, setting the stage for the first of up to five planned test flights as soon as April 11.

The rover itself will drive to an observation post nearly a football field away from the helicopter’s flight zone. Managers want to ensure the experimental drone, which will be attempting the first powered flight in the atmosphere of another planet, does not endanger the $2.4 billion rover.

“We plan to use our video capability, and our telephoto capabilities, because we have to stand off quite a ways from the helicopter, Bell said. “But we’ll be definitely doing videos with the Mastcam-Z of the helicopter. It’s going to be very exciting, and we’re looking forward to those really historic aviation first kind of movies.”

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