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Space

Here's why that's important for mission scientists here on Earth.

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November 7, 2017

An artist's impression of Mars 2020's mast cameras.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

In less than three years, a robot larger than an SUV (that's a pretty big space bot) is going to blast off from Earth and head towards Mars. The droid will gently parachute down onto the red planet's surface, guided at the very end by a skycrane, which will bring it safely to the ground. That's the plan anyway for Mars 2020. In addition to becoming the most modern piece of tech on our neighbor planet, the new robot will also have more cameras than any rover to go before it.

It’s 23 cameras will outnumber Curiosity’s collection by six, Spirit’s and Opportunity’s each by 13, and Sojourner’s—the first rover—by 20. The eye upgrades, facilitated by advances in camera engineering, will give researchers a clearer look at Mars, sure, but they will also help save time and ease the grueling process of scheduling tasks on Mars from 33.9 million miles away.

Cameras on the Mars 2020 rover.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Currently, to plan out a day's worth of work on Curiosity, it takes scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) about eight hours to first process information gathered by the rover the day before, plan out the next day’s tasks, engineer those projects, bundle them up in digital instructions, and send more instructions back to Mars.

Engineers spend about a half hour to an hour alone processing the images that Curiosity sends back, stitching together wide angle photos, or lining up stereo images that let humans—or rovers—deduce information about depth from two-dimensional pictures.

“For things like driving or operating the arm, we take a picture with the left camera and a picture with the right camera” Justin Maki, the imaging scientist for Mars 2020, says. “Then we match up pixels between the two images to create a 3D image of the terrain. Because we have these wider field of view lenses, we end up with better quality stereo terrain maps.”

Maki and his team's plan for the next mission is to compress the entire daily timeline down to five hours, in part by taking advantage of the smaller, cheaper, and more powerful cameras on the rover, which have a much wider field of view.

The wider field of view and high resolution means less time stitching together or processing images, and more time working on the next day’s assignments for the rover, whether that’s telling it to drive over to a rock, avoid an obstacle, or fire a laser.

“The shorter the timeline the more chances you get for ground-in-the-loop planning,” Maki says. That means that there’s more room to accommodate the 40 minute delay in days between a day on Mars and a day on Earth. It may not seem like much, but the delay can periodically throw things out of whack when we’re talking interplanetary scales.

“Some days you come into work in the morning and the plan hasn’t finished executing yet on Mars,” Maki says. That’s a problem, because researchers have to wait for the info to come in to start their day. Delays—plus the eight hours needed to plan and program a day—mean sometimes unpredictable hours, which can get exhausting, especially when expeditions are extended and the team is five years into a two year mission, which is the case with Curiosity.

“When we first land we’ll work all through the night,” Maki says. “But that's hard to sustain much beyond three months.”

A shorter, five hour window means that information can come in late to the JPL lab and researchers can still turn around precisely calibrated instructions by the end of a normal working day, which wouldn’t be possible without the wide-angle lenses on the camera taking precise pictures of the surrounding environment, samples, and the rover itself.

Of course, in addition to providing detailed navigation aids, the large number of cameras also means more amazing images for everyone back home as well. High-speed landing video cameras, along with a specialized microphone, will capture the harrowing descent of the rover to the surface. Yes, the engineers will see detailed footage of how the parachutes deploy in Mars’ atmosphere, but the rest of us will get a live-action remake of Seven Minutes of Terror —the immensely popular NASA animation of Curiousity’s landing.

And, like other NASA missions, when information comes back from Mars 2020 mission, the public will be able to follow along almost as soon as Maki and the other mission scientists get the information.

“It's a really unique time in human history. Before, explorers would go off on a ship and hopefully they would come back with some stories or maybe some drawings,” Maki says. “But now anyone in the world can participate in our voyage in real time.”

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Description: is a well-known and respected periodical journal that reaches an international audience of educators and others concerned with cutting-edge theories and proposals. For 100 years, the journal has contributed to the advancement of educational practice in elementary and secondary schools by judicious study of the latest trends, examination of new procedures, evaluation of traditional practices, and replication of previous research. The journal is an invaluable resource for teachers, counselors, supervisors, administrators, curriculum planners, and educational researchers as they consider the structure of tomorrow's curricula. Special issues examine major education concerns in-depth. Theme topics include methodology, motivation, literacy, and professional development.
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Forty-five years ago, NASA traveled to the moon with far less power than an iPhone.

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Consider, if you will, the device that’s more than likely sitting in your pocket or bag. Whether a smartphone or tablet, it’s a wondrous testament to the progress of humanity’s technological advances. That thin, metal, glass and plastic slab — regardless of who made it and what it runs — contains everything we hold essential to daily lives within its slender frame. It connects us to any part of the world, enables instant communication, delivers photos and videos, and lets us while away free time on dubiously addictive games.

Apollo 11 Lunar Module

There’s an image that regularly makes the rounds on social media, one from the ’80s, which features a man surrounded by technology of the day — a video camera, a boombox, a Walkman, a Betamax player, a calculator and so forth. A common caption attached to the photo is that now, all of the devices the man has can fit into our pockets. That’s a pretty mind-blowing fact when you really think about it. However, it’s not even close to an awe-inspiring comparison with a much older, much grander technological achievement.

This past week, America — and, indeed, the world — celebrated 45 years since NASA successfully put the first men on the moon. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, with Michael Collins monitoring from above, took humanity’s first steps on another world. It was, as Armstrong told the world watching at home, “one giant leap for mankind.” It was also, reflecting on the events from a modern perspective, something of a miracle.

The ’60s were marked by a leap in technological capabilities. Previous computers and electronic circuits relied on vacuum tubes to process their information, but the ’60s brought the mass production of the staple of all modern electronics: the transistor. The transistor enabled smaller, more efficient computers and processing devices, which in turn led to the creation of the integrated circuit — more commonly known as the microchip. Of course, the development of the microchip and fast adoption of the transistor would likely have been much slower had it not been for one organization: NASA.

NASA’s space race with the Soviet Union was, by this point, culminating towards one objective: getting a man on the moon. The Soviets had succeeded in putting the first human in space, with Yuri Gagarin, and America wasn’t going to let them grab the next major milestone. The Apollo program would be NASA’s magnum opus, an achievement unrivalled to that point. However, it also demanded a serious amount of computational power. From NASA’s mission control, to the rocket’s power systems, to the command module’s guidance computer and the lunar lander’s control scheme, everything demanded new, original software and technology to help NASA achieve their goal.

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