Why Do The Mars Rover's Images Look So Bad?

A lot of people are wondering why the first colour image from the Mars Curiosity Rover looks so murky. Or why the black and white pictures look so low-resolution and out of focus in some areas. Calm yourselves. They will look absolutely amazing soon, perfect and in high-def.

There's a perfectly good reason why they look so bad now.

Today's image — Curiosity's first colour snap was taken by the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which, though clearly capable of photographing thehorizon, is really designed to take close up pictures of martian rocks and soil. MAHLI is part of a Swiss-army-ish gadget arm that has five more instruments.

Its colour sensor is 1600 by 1200 pixels in size — just a 2MP camera. More than enough to take close-ups of the objects that may get drilled by the other gadgets in the arm. Two megapixels is not that bad. In fact, it can capture plenty of detail, as the crop below clearly shows. So why does the image look hazy and murky?

Two words: dust cap.

Dust caps

All the cameras in Curiosity are covered with transparent dust caps. These were installed to protect the lenses during landing. Engineers knew that the landing operation, with the skycrane firing its rockets over the rover, would produce a lot of dust: particles that could fly around and damage the delicate camera glass.

So they placed protective covers on every lens on the vehicle to avoid scratches. They'll pop the caps off in the coming days, when they're confident that the lenses are out of harm's way. Now, this being NASA, there are failsafes everywhere: To account for the off chance that the the pop-off mechanisms fail, the engineers made the dust caps see-through. Which is the cameras are still firing off images. Better to have blurry images than no images at all, right?

Once the caps get popped, all the images from all cameras will be crystal clear. In fact, that already happened with the Hazard Cameras (Hazcams). These were the cameras that beamed the rover's first images to Earth:

Those top ones look terrible because the dust caps are full of particles. But check out how good they look without the caps:

Crispy and nice... except for the blurriness on the edges. The blur has an easy explanation too.

Hazard cameras

As the name indicates, Hazcams are used to detect potential hazards on the ground, so the drivers of Curiosity can avoid dangerous situations. Don't expect spectacular images from the Hazcams.

The cameras are black and white, only 1-megapixel in resolution. They send images in 3D so both the Curiosity's brain and her drivers have a perfect idea of what is going to go under the rover at any time.

The Hazcams also use super-wide-angle-hazard-spottin' fisheye lenses, which is the source of the blurry edges: The image has been linearized so the public can see a "better" picture. This means that optical correction has been used to straighten out the distortion resulting from the use of these lenses. The process deforms, scales and stretches the original bubbly image, which results in the side blurring you can see.

We got thumbnails!

Another thing that has puzzled people are the tiny images that are shown by NASA in anticipation of the bigger pictures coming later.

These caused the biggest cheers at mission control last Sunday. Somebody shouted "We got a thumbnail!" and the crowd went wild.

That meant that Curiosity had beamed down a small version of the first image taken by the Hazcam. These thumbnails — which are 64 by 64 pixels in size — are like the icons for graphic archives in your computer, tiny previews that indicate the content of the bigger resolution image coming next.

The same happened with color video of its descent. That video is also made with thumbnails, the ones taken by Curiosity's belly camera: MARDI, the Mars Descent Imager instrument. Those images are originally 1,600 x 1,200 pixel, so expect a full — and spectacular — high definition movie of the descent in the coming months, as the images get downloaded to JPL's computers.

It takes a while, because, in case you haven't noticed, the Rover is on Mars. Which is very far away. The Rover is doing its best to send the photos to us as quickly as possible.

The Really Good Stuff

That will be part of the really good stuff. Not that what we have now is not good. It's amazing, because it shows that everything is working and fine.

Today we only got the first colour image, taken with an instrument that was not designed as Curiosity's primary camera. But Curiosity has many cameras. Twelve, in fact. Some of them capable of capturing 3D. Each of these cameras has a different function.

There are Navigation Cameras: 3D black and white cameras used to drive the rover, mounted on the head of the vehicle. There's MAHLI, which is more of a science camera. There's the Laser-Induced Remote Sensing for Chemistry and Micro-Imaging, which is not a camera in the traditional sense, but one that will look into the composition of rocks with unprecedented detail and accuracy using a laser to vaporise rocks coupled with an spectrograph for analysis for the resulting plasma.

And then there's Mast Camera, or MastCam for short. This is the one designed to capture the amazing colour images, panoramas, and video in high definition. There are two of them, in fact, because they are designed to create 3D imagery. And they have very powerful zoom lenses too.

These will be the real human eyes of the rover. They will give us the Really Good Stuff.


Comments

    What happens to the cameras during a dust storm???? Wont the lenses get damaged?

      You'd think that NASA would use the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to detect/predict storms near Curiosity, and move it somewhere safe before it got damaged. At least that's what I'd do.

        It can't move very fast, and can't move with much notice.

        God, I'm so sick of people bitching about this. It's not a freakin' remote control car, people.

          Exactly. This expectation of immediate results is frustrating to read over and over again. Yes the first few pics have been underwhelming, but they're not going to fire up the big guns and risk causing a fault condition in an unserviceable, 2.5 dollar vehicle until everything has been checked out. And remember, the camera onboard the rover Opportunity has been taking pictures through dust storms for the past 8 years. I'm pretty sure NASA's got things covered on that front.

            Thankyou. And the thing is, it's not there to take photos. The photos are secondary.

            NASA doesn't send probes for our entertainment!

    At least we can receive data from the little guy, I can't even make calls 10km away on Voda.

    You see, this is why nasa should have conulted with me prior- i'd make the dust caps tranparent, AND re-usable.
    bloody amateurs.

      They ARE transparent. They just have dust on them.

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    Too bad they still cannot get the colours correct, the sky on mars is BLUE like ours - not pink - this was done from the begging due to the fact that it looked so much like the Arizona desert NASA was concerned that the hoax brigade would go nuts with the images - there are some other factors involved such as the red light levels that are different to our atmosphere - but I would have thought that by now we would see an accurate true colour image of mars

      Earth's sky is blue due to Rayleigh scattering of light in our atmosphere. Mars' sky is prominently in the red spectrum due to Iron oxide particles in the atmosphere.
      However according to Wikipedia, without a linked citation, Mars' sky as scarlet or bright orangeish-red color during the day, with sunsets showing rose coloured sky going blue towards the sun. And occasionally purple due to scattered light from ice particles in clouds.

      Hope that colour camera can get some good photos at varying times.

      Actually Paul my understanding is that while Mars's sky would have a blue tinge to it, it would be very pale and washed out compared to ours. But in addition to light being scattered by the atmosphere, there are also dust particles being blown around the place and when you look at the martian horizon the red dust in the air far outweighs the faint touch of blue in the sky. That's why it comes out a boring beige colour. It's similar to how smog haze can make the horizon sky look white/grey here on earth.

      Did you even bother to do a google search before commenting? Shame!!

    I'm sorry, you think those photos are BAD? COULD YOU DO BETTER, PUNK?!

      This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    Feel free to check out how the lens/dust caps work.
    http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/videoarchive/
    Scroll down a little.

    FFS why does everyone have to be a critic about grainy/blury images and an expert on what NASA should have done ? Just because you think your an expert with a SLR here on Earth doesn't count for SHIT when your talking about this bit of machinery that's just been hurtled through space and cooked within an inch of its life landing on another planet.

    Strangely enough I think I'll leave it to the people at NASA that managed to get it into space and land in the first place, than listen to someone who thinks they know it all on Giz. Just be amazed at the fact it got there in one piece and was even able to send an image at all. Oh and as for thinking you can move it out of the way in a hurry *facepalm* you think latency from AUS-USA on the internet is bad lol

    Where's the pics of the 3 boobed women

      Never mind that. Quaaaaid, start the reactor! Get this puppy rolling

        DAMMIT MARS ROVER GIVE THE PEEPEL DE AYER.

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    I know this is all exciting and stuff but lets face it, if they found ancient ruins or that kind of thing we will never find out about it.

    Serious question: Does anyone think this could be a hoax?

    PASADENA, Calif. — The ancient Martian crater where the Curiosity rover landed looks strikingly similar to California's Mojave Desert with its looming mountains and hanging haze, scientists said Wednesday.

      You'd think that someone would be looking in the Mojave Desert, wouldn't you?

      The notion that this is a hoax is absolutely absurd, unless someone actually has some kind of convincing evidence other than "it looks kind of like something on Earth". It'd be one hell of a constant hoax with too many people involved to keep silent.

      It's beyond me how people think that the US would engage in such elaborate hoaxes when they couldn't even keep Watergate under wraps.

      Yes, it's a hoax and the scientists, while covering up the hoax, just accidentally blew it on Wednesday.

      Looks like you blew this whole thing wide open antiskeptic. Also, little known fact, Iraq doesn't exist, we never went to the moon, and Coke is actually the milk of a small species of Lizard from Iceland.

      Interesting reaction from Everblight and olearymo. No disrespect meant to you.

      However, it's not an unreasonable question, given the incredible odds against a perfect landing (by NASA's own admission), the $2.6 billion invested, and the future funding of NASA at stake.

      I agree with Everblight: saying it looks like the Mojave desert is not evidence, but isn't it curious that the landing was staged and filmed by JPL two weeks earlier:
      http://articles.pasadenasun.com/2012-08-04/news/33038733_1_mars-yard-jpl-rovers-jpl-scientists

      "Two weeks before the rover Curiosity's scheduled landing on Mars, NASA engineers stood on a hill overlooking the Jet Propulsion Laboratory campus, punching commands on their iPhones to test model rovers' ability to navigate over bulky red rocks. They were working on JPL's Mars Yard, a carefully constructed fake Martian surface. … Many of the volcanic rocks in the Mars Yard are hand-me-downs from previous testing sites, collected from the Mojave Desert."

      I used to buy the "too-many-people-involved-to-keep-silent" argument too. But if you trust your own senses and reasoning abilities, you'll quickly break out of that self-censorship trap. Sometimes it takes a bit of courage and willingness to let people label you a conspiracy theorist.

      I don't like being a skeptic. But I also don't like being fooled. Do you?

        PS. Excuse my return, but I wanted to add this piece of evidence (admittedly circumstantial).

        As you must know, three days ago NASA also conducted and filmed a test lift-off of its experimental cargo moon vehicle Morpheus in its own backyard in Florida, with slightly less success than the Mars lander 154,000,000 miles away:
        http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/nasas-morpheus-lander-in-fiery-crash-at-cape-canaveral-8031035.html
        Nasa's Morpheus lander in fiery crash at Cape Canaveral
        by Irene Klotz
        Friday 10 August 2012
        "The insect-like vehicle, designed and built by engineers at Nasa's Johnson Space Centre in Houston, had made several flights attached to a crane before yesterday's attempted free-flight. … Morpheus arrived at Florida's seaside space centre in July for three months of increasingly rigorous test flights, including automated landings in a mock moonscape, complete with craters and boulders. … The accident happened as Nasa scientists were still hailing the Mars rover Curiosity's descent and landing on the Red Planet earlier this week as a 'miracle of engineering.' "

        Let's compare this to the reportedly successful lift-off in 1972 of the last manned vehicle from the moon's surface (official NASA video):
        http://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a17/a17v.launch.mov
        Still frames here:
        http://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a17/a17ascent.jpg
        Archived videos here:
        http://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a17/video17.html

        Does this footage look credible? I'd like to believe the scientists at NASA. But they control all the evidence, and they ask me to take their word for it. What do others think? How about the author, Jesus Diaz?

        If the moderator considers this off-topic, I'll let this be the last word. Thank you for reading.

        "It is ethical to doubt." --John David Garcia

          PPS. Just in from The New York Times, for the record:
          http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/14/science/space/mars-looks-quite-familiar-if-only-on-the-surface.html
          Mars Looks Quite Familiar, if Only on the Surface
          By KENNETH CHANG
          Published: August 13, 2012

          "A conspiracy theorist might think that NASA’s newest Mars rover, the Curiosity, is actually just in the middle of a desert on Earth.
          Over the weekend, the Curiosity, which landed on Aug. 7 after an eight-month flight, started sending back a 360-degree high-resolution panorama of its surroundings.
          As the accompanying NASA news release noted, the images show “a landscape closely resembling portions of the southwestern United States.”
          At a news conference on Wednesday, John P. Grotzinger, a professor of geology at the California Institute of Technology who serves as the mission’s project scientist, compared the view with a place just a few hours’ drive from Pasadena, Calif., and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the rover’s birthplace.
          “You would really be forgiven for thinking that NASA was trying to pull a fast one on you,” he said, “and we actually put a rover out in the Mojave Desert and took a picture — a little L.A. smog coming in there.”
          He added, “To a certain extent, the first impression you get is how Earth-like it seems.”
          Where the Curiosity actually sits is a 96-mile-wide crater named Gale near the Martian equator."

          Really? I'm still skeptical. Pixels are not evidence, no matter how hi-def the photos are.

    Another explanation as to why the early images are of a low res

    “They have to compress the heck out of most of the images that are coming down from Curiosity right now because it’s only communicating at 8 kbps right now, which is a pretty darned low data rate. It’ll be wonderful when they finally get that high-speed link to Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter working and they can start downlinking at 2 Mbps”

    excerpt copied from
    http://www.planetary.org/blogs/emily-lakdawalla/2012/08072140-msl-mardi-first-full-res.html

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