The Cornell University-developed, mast-mounted panoramic camera,
called the Pancam, on board the rovers Spirit and Opportunity will
provide the clearest, most-detailed Martian landscapes ever seen.

The image resolution – equivalent to 20/20 vision for a person
standing on the Martian surface – will be three times higher than
that recorded by the cameras on the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997
or the Viking Landers in the mid-1970s.

From 10 feet away, Pancam has a resolution of 1 millimeter per pixel.
“It’s Mars like you’ve never seen it before,” says Steven Squyres,
Cornell professor of astronomy and principal investigator for the
suite of scientific instruments carried by the rovers.

Spirit is scheduled to land on Mars on Jan. 3 at 11:35 p.m. EST.
Opportunity will touch down Jan. 25 at 12:05 a.m. EST.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, a division of the
California Institute of Technology, manages the Mars Exploration
Rover project for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C.
Cornell, in Ithaca, N.Y., is managing the rovers’ science instruments.

Pancam’s mast can swing the camera 360 degrees across the horizon and
90 degrees up or down. Scientists will know a rover’s orientation
each day on the Martian surface by using data gained as the camera
searches for and finds the sun in the sky at a known time of day.
Scientists will determine a rover’s location on the planet by
triangulating the positions of features seen on the distant horizon
in different directions.

Rover science team member James Bell, Cornell associate professor of
astronomy and the lead scientist for Pancam, says that high
resolution is important for conducting
science on Mars. “We want to see fine details. Maybe there is
layering in the rocks, or the
rocks are formed from sediments instead of volcanoes. We need to see
the rock grains,
whether they are wind-formed or shaped by water,” he says.

Also, Pancam is important for determining a rover’s travel plans.
Says Bell: “We need to see details of possible obstacles that may be
way off in the distance.”

As each twin-lens CCD (charge-coupled device) camera takes pictures,
the electronic images will be sent to the rover’s onboard computer
for a number of image processing steps, including compression, before
the data are sent to Earth.

Each image, reduced to nothing more than a stream of zeros and ones,
will be part of a once- or twice-daily stream of information beamed
to Earth, a journey that takes 10 minutes. The data will be retrieved
by NASA’s Deep Space Network, delivered to mission controllers at JPL
and converted into raw images. From there, the images will be sent to
the new Mars image processing facility at Cornell’s Space Sciences
Building, where researchers and students will hover over computers to
produce scientifically useful pictures.

During the surface activity by the rovers, from January to May 2004,
there will be daily extensive planning by the Mars scientific team,
led by Squyres. Research specialists Elaina McCartney and Jon Proton
will participate in these meetings and decide how to implement the
plans for Pancam and each rover’s five other instruments.

Processing pictures from 100 million miles away will be no easy feat.
It took three years for Cornell faculty, staff and students to
precisely calibrate the Pancam lenses, filters and detectors, and to
write the software that tells the special camera what to do.

For instance, researchers Jonathan Joseph and Jascha Sohl-Dickstein
wrote and perfected software that will produce images of great
clarity. One of Joseph’s software routines patches the images
together into larger pictures, called mosaics, and another brings out
details within single images. Sohl-Dickstein’s software will allow
scientists to generate color pictures and conduct spectral analysis,
which is important in understanding the planet’s geology and

Extensive work on the camera also was accomplished by Cornell
graduates Miles Johnson, Heather Arneson and Alex Hayes. Hayes, who
started working on the Mars mission as a Cornell sophomore, built a
mock-up of the panoramic camera that aided the delicate color
calibration and calculation of the actual Mars camera’s focal length
and field of view. Johnson and Arneson spent eight months at JPL
running Pancam under Mars-like conditions and collecting calibration
data for the camera’s 16 filters.

For the students and recent graduates on the Pancam team, the
research has been both valuable experience and education. “I stood
inside a clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and performed
testing on the real rovers,” says Johnson. “It was a weird but an
exciting feeling standing next to such a really complex piece of
equipment that would soon be on Mars.”