If you thought the Mars Curiosity rover — which has already delivered some incredible insights about Mars and even figured out how to use its own drill after it unexpectedly broke — was an impressive piece of machinery, just wait until you hear what NASA has cooked up for its successor. The space agency’s next robotic Mars explorer, set to launch in 2020, will sport not one, not two, but a total of 23 eyes with which to take in the martian landscape.
The new rover, which is currently being built by the geniuses at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, will be able to see Mars in a whole new way, and will deliver even more stunning photographs from the planet’s surface than we’ve ever seen before.
The rover will have cameras all over the place, but its most useful visual instrument will likely be its “Mastcam-Z,” which is an improved version of the Mastcam currently installed on the Curiosity rover. The “Z” in this case stands for “zoom,” and the rover’s shiny new eyes will be able to better visualize the landscape in 3D, spotting obstacles and features of the rocky environment of the Red Planet.
If you need an idea of just how much better the camera technology will be on the Mars 2020 rover, consider that the navigation cameras aboard Curiosity (as well as the rovers Spirit and Opportunity) captured images that were one megapixel in size and were entirely black and white. By contrast, the new rover will be equipped with Navcams that will shoot in full color, and at a whopping 20 megapixels. That’s an astronomical improvement.
But with bigger cameras comes bigger images, and sending data from Mars to Earth isn’t exactly a simple affair. NASA hopes to make it all work as smoothly as possible with a combination of image compression and relays that will allow the rover to send the data to Mars orbiters and have them shoot the data to the Earth, rather than doing it in a single step. Even if you’re not a space buff, 2020 and beyond is going to be a pretty exciting time for getting a good look at Mars.