Arizona Technology and Innovation: ASU/Mars 2020 Mission

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NASA has chosen Arizona State University to design and operate a camera system for the Mars 2020 mission. The University will design, deliver and oversee Mastcam-Z imaging, a pair of color panoramic zoom cameras for the next rover mission to be launched to the surface of Mars in 2020. Jim Bell, a professor in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, will be the principal investigator overseeing the project. He will discuss ASU’s involvement in the Mars 2020 Mission.

Ted Simons: Tonight's edition of "Arizona Technology and Innovation" looks at ASU's role of designing operating on-board cameras for the next rover mission to Mars. Jim Bell is in charge of ASU's part in the mission. Good to have you here.

Jim Bell: Good to be here, Ted.

Ted Simons: ASU is designing operating cameras for NASA? Talk to us about this.

Jim Bell: We've got cameras and other instruments all over the solar system. There's something like spacecraft exploring the solar system. There are cameras on Mars, on the surface of Mars, around Saturn that people are involved with, cameras on the way to an asteroid, Mercury, the moon, just a fabulous time for space exploration.

Ted Simons: And again, for this particular mission now we've got color, panoramic, zoom cameras and they are stereoscopic. What does all that mean?

Jim Bell: It means we'll take some great pictures of the red planet. The next rover that goes will launch in . It'll be very much like -- you may be familiar with the "Curiosity" Rover, the big Mini Cooper sized spacecraft that landed a few years ago. NASA is using a lot of spare parts from that to help save money, keep the costs down. But this will have a bit of a different mission. Unlike "Curiosity," this new rover, which doesn't have a name yet, they will name it someday, will be designed to collect and cache samples. There will be a little container on board and it'll put drill cores in there, we'll scoop some dirt, maybe some atmospheric samples. And a future mission in the 20s will go and get that cache and bring it back.

Ted Simons: Interesting.

Jim Bell: Our cameras will be taking pictures of the rocks and sand and dust and dirt and formations and layers, trying to help best choose those samples to eventually bring back to the earth.

Ted Simons: And these two cameras ASU is helping to develop and these sorts of things, if I'm not mistaken, are they like the eyes of the Rover? That is a good analogy?

Jim Bell: That's a very good analogy, Ted. We think of the rovers as alive in a sense, we think of them as robotic field geologists. They have eyes, they can spin around and look up and down. Their wheels like the legs, you can move them around and give us mobility. There's an arm and on the end are fingers, a camera, there's a drill, there's other chemical instruments kind of like the nose that let you sniff the terrain and get the chemistry and the minerology. Yeah, we do anthropomorphize them, make them human. But they are just robots and only as smart as the people that program them.

Ted Simons: But they are very smart, you guys are pretty smart.

Ted Simons: Red green blue color imaging?

Jim Bell: And we'll get picture like we would see with our own eyes, we see in the red green blue. Because they are using digital detectors we can also see in the ultraviolet a little more forth into the blue, and a little farther into the infrared, farther into the red. There is a range we can see. Rocks and minerals reflect light in different ways so we can do a little bit of sort of chemical-mineral analysis with the cameras, too.

Ted Simons: As far as the zoom is concerned, how tight can you get, how wide can you get?

Jim Bell: We can get very tight, down to seeing features that are only sort of a millimeter or so in size from our position up on the mast a couple of meters away from the ground. We enter face with a microscope on the arm, as well. We can go from the macroscopic panoramic view all the way down to the millimeter scale, it goes down to tens of microns scale. We can see textures and features with these cameras.

Ted Simons: That's a nice range for anyone's camera.

Jim Bell: It is.

Ted Simons: As far as ASU's part in this, you are leading this. Are you going to go to NASA or lead from Tempe?

Jim Bell: We're working with a small company in San Diego called maylin systems. We're working with them, we'll do a bunch of the fabrication there, and some of the testing on the Tempe campus. Well, once the cameras are built, we deliver them to the jet propulsion lab in Pasadena where they are building the whole rover. They are bolted on the top of the rover. It's on the Tempe campus, it's the same as "Curiosity," it looks the same. We deliver this tomorrow JPL in Pasadena. They do the final testing and make sure we didn't leave the lens caps on or anything like that. It gets buttoned up inside a cruise and launch configuration that gets shipped to Florida, and put on top of the rocket. Early to mid that rocket will launch to Mars. It'll take nine months to a year depending on exactly when they launch. It'll all still be kind of cocooned up. In a very rapid amount of time, just a few hours' time, everything opens up as it enters the Martian atmosphere. There's a heat shield, a parachute floats down. You may have seen "Curiosity" landing with the jet packs and lowering the Rover down this crane. We'll do the same thing for this vehicle. Get down to the surface, the mast will pop up and then we'll open our eyes and hopefully we will have done our job right.

Ted Simons: That'll be a time when you will be very nervous.

Jim Bell: I'm already nervous.

Ted Simons: As far as ASU being chosen, how was ASU chosen? Why was ASU chosen?

Jim Bell: There was an international competition NASA had. The administration and Congress decided, we're going to send another rover to Mars in . NASA sends out an announcement to the world saying, we want to know what the best instruments are for that Rover. You know, we need images, we need chemical analysis instruments, instruments to drill, et cetera. So we wrote a proposal, a group of us at ASU and colleagues from around the country and around the world actually, some European colleagues, as well. Formed a family, wrote a proposal to respond to that, to try to fit within the resources, the mass, the volume, the power, the cost. It's a box you've got squeeze into all of these programs. We submitted our proposal last January. And it turned out other teams submitted their proposals, too. There was a lot. Work been doing out there preparing for the opportunities like this. So very competitive. I don't know how many cameras we competed against. I don't know the details of all the proposals, it's a very, you know, carefully closed process with reviews and all that kind of stuff. In the end they picked seven instruments and we're one of them.

Ted Simons: Congratulations and good luck. You know what's ahead of you for the next few years what you're going to be busy with.

Jim Bell: I'm going to be busy building cameras to go to Mars.

Ted Simons: Excellent, excellent, good to have you here.

Jim Bell:Professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University;

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