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Perseverance rover’s zoom camera sees Mars in 3-D

If Martians ever golfed, the zoom camera system on NASA’s Perseverance rover could spot their golf balls from 100 yards away — but that’s not all. It can also see in colorful 3-D.

Three-dimensional perspectives of the Martian landscape can help scientists and engineers figure out the best course for the rover to follow when it’s driving autonomously around Jezero Crater. Perseverance’s navigation cameras can provide 3-D imagery in black-and-white — but for the full-color treatment, the twin zoom cameras of the Mastcam-Z system provide views that can’t be beat.

The Mastcam-Z team includes an honest-to-goodness celebrity: Brian May, who’s the lead guitarist for the rock band Queen as well as a Ph.D. astrophysicist who specializes in stereoscopic imaging. May and another technical collaborator, Claudia Manzoni, are sharing their 3-D pictures on the Mastcam-Z blog.

The first 3-D view from May and Manzoni focuses on a weirdly shaped rock formation nicknamed Harbor Seal Rock.

“It is about half a meter across and was probably carved into this intriguing shape by grains of sand carried by Martian winds over billions of years,” May and Marzoni write. “Rocks eroded by the wind are called ‘ventifacts,’ a Latin word meaning ‘wind-made.’”

You can view the ventifact using standard red-blue glasses, but May recommends looking at a side-by-side picture on a mobile phone. It’s not that hard to get the 3-D effect if you bring the phone close to your eyes, or if you use the type of stereo viewer that May favors.

“The image you get through this, I think, will astound you,” he said, “because it’s stereoscopy in its best form.”

Harbor Seal Rock

Another 3-D view shows a stratified hill rising up about a mile and a half (2.3 kilometers) from the rover’s landing site. It’s thought to be a remnant of a more extensive river delta formation that was partially eroded over the course of billions of years.

“The feature is about 200 meters across, and will hopefully be inspected more closely by the rover in the near future,” May and Marzoni write.

Mastcam-Z is still in the process of being commissioned and calibrated, said Melissa Rice, a planetary scientist at Western Washington University who’s part of the camera team.

In a couple of weeks, that process will be put on hold to clear the way for test flights of the rover’s Ingenuity mini-helicopter. But the first zoom pictures of faraway hills are definitely whetting Rice’s appetite for the discoveries that lie ahead.

“We may not get there for a year, but being able to zoom in on those distant rocks and see our destination from kilometers away — that just blows me away,” she told me.

In other developments:

  • Scientists suggest that most of the water that existed on Mars billions of years ago ended up being trapped as hydrated minerals in the planet’s crust rather than escaping into space. “Atmospheric escape doesn’t fully explain the data that we have for how much water actually once existed on Mars,” Caltech’s Eva Scheller said in a NASA news release. The analysis, based on data collected during multiple missions to Mars, was published in the journal Science and presented at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.
  • Less than a month into its mission on Mars, Perseverance has spotted its first dust devil — a whirlwind of dust whipping across the terrain. Such mini-tornadoes have been documented previously by other rovers, including Curiosity, Spirit and Opportunity. Dust devils have even been detected from Martian orbit.

Cosmic Log giveaway: If I’m writing about 3-D images, that’s the perfect time to give away a pair of 3-D glasses. I’ll send cardboard 3-D specs by postal mail to the first person to answer the following question correctly in a comment below, based on submitted time stamp. (U.S. postal addresses only.)

What is the informal name given to the dune field near the Perseverance rover? (Hint: It’s a Navajo word.) 

Update for 11 a.m. PT April 2: We have a winner! Check out the comments section to get the answer.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

6 replies on “Perseverance rover’s zoom camera sees Mars in 3-D”

You’re getting close enough that you’ve earned the glasses! Perseverance landed in a quadrant of Jezero Crater that was named “Tséyi’” – using the Navajo name for Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument. During the news conference I referenced, project scientist Ken Farley said the dune-covered area near the landing site was called “Séítah,” a Navajo word that translates to “amongst the sand.” Séítah is the word I was looking for, but I figure “Sei” or “Tséyi’” will do. Ray, send a message with your mailing address to cosmiclog at hotmail dot com and I’ll send you the 3-D glasses with my compliments.

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