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With the New Horizon’s cameras sending back amazing photos of the dwarf planet Pluto this week, B&H Photo thought it would be a great time to talk cameras—especially, cameras on US interstellar space probes.
The first photograph of Earth from space was taken by the TIROS-1 weather satellite on April 1, 1960. Ever since, satellites, probes, and spacecraft have been taking amazing photos of the solar system and beyond! Space probes are packed with sensors, but in our list below, we wanted to talk about those imaging systems that are relatively close cousins to what you can find on the shelves of the B&H SuperStore.
Cassini Launched in 1997 and currently orbiting the crown jewel of the solar system, Saturn and its and moons, the Cassini probe is equipped with various optical sensors and one optical camera that has captured amazing images of the ringed planet. The spacecraft’s Huygens Probe landed on the moon, Titan. Cassini’s Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) consists of a wide- and narrow-angle camera. Both cameras feature a CCD sensor of 12 micron pixels numbering 1024 x 1024, with a resolving power that can see a quarter-dollar at a range of 2.5 miles.
Cassini sails over the rings of Saturn (artist's rendition).
Each camera has two filter wheels—9 filters for the wide-angle and 18 for the narrow-angle camera—to limit specific wavelengths of light, and the cameras are sending an average of 2,700 photos to Earth each month, including frames to verify Cassini’s position in space, using celestial navigation, as there is definitely no GPS on Saturn!
Dawn Launched in 2007 and currently orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres, Dawn first visited Vesta and then its ion propulsion system sent it into orbit around Ceres. Both Vesta and Ceres are the largest objects in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
Dawn (artist's rendition)
Dawn carries two identical cameras: a primary and backup known as the Framing Camera. Each has a 150mm f/7.9 lens with 7 color filters and 8 gigabits of internal data storage.
Deep Impact Deep Impact launched in 2005 toward the comet Tempel 1 and, less than 7 months after launch, the probe released an impactor that struck the comet’s surface. Deep Impact carried two cameras, a High Resolution Instrument (HRI), an 11.8" telescope, and a Medium Resolution Instrument (HRI), a 4.7" telescope. The MRI served as a functional backup to the HRI as well as a celestial navigation tool. The impactor carried a targeting camera.
Deep Impact (artist's rendition)
The HRI was one of the largest cameras flown into space on a planetary mission and had a resolution of 6' per pixel at 435 miles. The MRI’s wide-angle system had a resolution of 33' per pixel at the same range. Unfortunately, the HRI’s images were blurry for the comet encounter, but there were plans to repurpose the camera and probe to look for planets orbiting distant stars.
This spectacular image of comet Tempel 1 was taken 67 seconds after it obliterated
Deep Impact's impactor spacecraft. The image was taken by the high-resolution camera on the mission's
flyby craft. Scattered light from the collision saturated the camera's detector, creating the bright splash
seen here. Linear spokes of light radiate away from the impact site, while reflected sunlight illuminates most of
the comet surface. The image reveals topographic features, including ridges,
scalloped edges and possibly impact craters formed long ago.
Deep Space 1 Pioneering ion propulsion technology, Deep Space 1 was launched in 1998 and flew by the asteroid 9969 Braille and the comet Borelly. The craft’s Miniature Integrated Camera and Imaging Spectrometer (MICAS) was a 26.5-lb package containing two black-and-white cameras and other imaging equipment.
Deep Space 1 (artist's rendition)
All of the sensors shared the same 4" diameter telescope and electronic shutters. One B&W camera was a CCD and the other was an active pixel sensor, similar to a CMOS sensor. The structure and mirrors were made out of silicon carbide. Camera resolution was approximately 100 to 150 feet at its closest approach of 3 miles.
This image of a xenon ion engine, photographed through a port of the vacuum chamber
where it was being tested at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
shows the faint blue glow of charged atoms being emitted from the engine.
Galileo Leaving Earth in 1989 onboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis, Galileo headed for the Jovian System, visiting two asteroids on its way to the gas giant. While in orbit around Jupiter, it was eyewitness to the collision between the Schumacher-Levy comet and the huge planet. The spacecraft was a spinning platform, but the part with the camera remained stationary. The Solid State Imager (SSI) was an 800 x 800-pixel CCD camera. Galileo was the first CCD-equipped spacecraft. To protect the CCD from Jupiter’s radiation, the camera was shielded with tantalum. An 8-filter wheel allowed filtering of different colors.
Galileo (artist's rendition)
In 2003, Galileo was intentionally crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere to prevent possibly contaminating the moon Europa with Earth-based material.
The surface of Jupiter's icy moon, Europa
Juno Currently en route to Jupiter after a 2011 launch, the Juno spacecraft will feature some first-of-its-kind photography social-media interaction. Launching this fall, JunoCam allows fans of the mission to help decide what photos the craft will capture when it reaches the gas giant in 2016. In fact, the camera was installed on the spacecraft strictly for public engagement purposes. The other instruments will be doing the science.
Juno (artist's rendition)
JunoCam features a Kodak KAI-2020 color imaging sensor with a resolution of 1600 x 1200 pixels. Its field of view is 18 x 3.4 degrees and it has three color filters. The elliptical orbit of the spacecraft will vary camera resolution from 1.8 miles per pixel to 1,118 miles per pixel. At the low resolution, the giant planet will be only about 75 pixels wide, but when it is up close, JunoCam will have better resolution than the Cassini probe did on its Jupiter flyby en route to Saturn. The Juno spacecraft will likely take less than 100 images on its 33-orbit flight around Jupiter.
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Launched in 2009 to the moon, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been photographing and mapping new craters on Earth’s natural satellite, making 3D lunar maps, and even photographing the Apollo manned mission landing sites! The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) is a system of three cameras. The two Narrow-Angle Cameras are designed to provide 20" panchromatic images over a 3.1-mile swath.
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (artist's rendition)
The Wide-Angle Camera provides a resolution of 330' in 7 color bands over a 37-mile swath. The LROC is a version of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s ConTeXt Camera and Mars Color Imager (see below).
Mariner Series The 10 Mariner probes were built to explore Venus, Mars, and Mercury between 1962 and 1973. Several were lost on launch mishaps, but other Mariners went on to make history. When Mariner 9 orbited Mars, it became the first space probe to enter orbit around another planet.
Some of the Mariner probes carried cameras, some did not. Mariner 6 and Mariner 7, launched in 1969, carried wide-angle and narrow-angle cameras and a digital tape recorder for the data. Mariner 9, launched in 1971, had the same photographic payload. Mariner 10, launched in 1973, carried two narrow-angle cameras with the digital tape recorder.
This view of channels on Mars came from NASA's Mariner 9 orbiter.
In 1971, Mariner 9 became the first spacecraft from Earth to enter orbit around Mars.
Mars Climate Orbiter The Mars Climate Orbiter launched to the Red Planet in 1998 and suffered a fiery death in the Martian Atmosphere when it experienced a navigational error due to a mix-up between Imperial and metric units becoming, perhaps, the world’s best argument for going metric universally. The mission was part of the Mars Surveyor ’98 program that included the Mars Polar Lander.
The Mars Color Imager
Onboard the spacecraft was the Mars Color Imager; a camera system combining wide and medium-angle cameras with 7.2 km/pixel, er, 4.5 miles/pixel resolution from Mars orbit with 1000 x 1000 pixel sensors. The wide-angle dual lens had a field of view of 140 degrees and was equipped with a 5-element fused silica f/6 lens for short UV and visible light. A 7-element f/5 lens worked with long UV and visible light. A prism and dichroic beam splitter gave the lens an effective focal length of 4.3mm. The medium-angle camera had a field of view of 6 degrees and a 6-element catadioptric lens at an f/2 aperture and 87.9mm focal length. This camera was scheduled to provide 40 meter/pixel, er, 131'/pixel resolution.
Mars Exploration Rovers, Opportunity and Spirit Both rovers were launched to Mars in the summer of 2003 with planned 90-day missions. Both rovers, sized about 5 x 5', landed in January of 2004; Spirit lasted almost 7.5 years. Meanwhile, the amazing Opportunity is still sending back data from the Red Planet more than a decade since it embarked on a 3-month mission!
Mars Exploration Rover (artist's rendition)
Both rovers were equipped with a small arsenal of cameras, including a panoramic camera (Pancam), hazard avoidance cameras (Hazcams), and navigation cameras (Navcams). The stereo panoramic camera is mounted atop the rover’s mast and has two lenses and CCD sensors placed 12" apart at 5' above the ground. The Pancam has 16 different filters at its disposal and its front lens elements are protected by a sapphire window. The 3-element lenses have a 38mm focal length and f/20 aperture. The CCD captures 12-bit images at 1024 x 1024 resolution and can generate mosaic images measuring 4000 x 24000 pixels.
The Navcam is mounted on the same mast as the Pancam and the four Hazcams are mounted low on the front and rear of the vehicle in stereo pairs to provide 3D images of the terrain.
Mars Global Surveyor In 1996, the Mars Global Surveyor left Earth for our closest neighbor away from the Sun. The spacecraft orbited Mars for more than nine years and its camera systems helped determine the surface routes for the aforementioned rovers, Opportunity and Spirit. Onboard the Mars Global Surveyor was the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) experiment.
Mars Global Surveyor (artist's rendition)
The MOC is the in-flight spare for the Mars Observer Camera (see below). The narrow-angle camera has a 13.8" aperture and 3.5m focal length at f/10. It is a Ritchey-Chrétien telescope with an 0.4-degree field of view for its 2048 x 2048 pixel CCD, with a resolution of 4.6'/pixel. The wide-angle camera system comprises two cameras mounted on the side of the narrow-angle assembly. One wide-angle camera has an 11.4mm focal length at f/6.3 and the other is 11mm at f/6.4. Field of view is 140 degrees and resolution is 919'/pixel at the nadir of the orbit and 1.2 miles/pixel at the limb.
Mars Observer Mars Observer launched in 1992 to the Red Planet and mysteriously lost contact with Earth just prior to entering Martian orbit. Onboard was the Mars Observer Camera (MOC) system. Lost to the void of outer space, an identical camera system was launched on the Mars Global Surveyor four years later (see above).
Mars Observer (artist's rendition)
Mars Odyssey Launched to Mars in 2001, the Mars Odyssey spacecraft is still in service and has collected more information on Mars than any spacecraft before or since. In orbit around Mars, the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) is a combination thermal infrared imaging spectrometer and high-resolution camera.
Mars Odyssey (artist's rendition)
THEMIS uses an all-reflective, 3-mirror f/1.7 anastigmatic telescope with a 4.7" aperture and a focal length of 200mm. The system is thermally stabilized by an electric cooler. The silicon array sensor measures 1024 x 1024 pixels and the visible camera has a resolution of 59'/pixel in the creation of 15,000 panchromatic visible images of the Martian surface. THEMIS can also align the IR and visible images as needed.
Mars Pathfinder/Sojourner Heading for the Martian System in 1996, the Pathfinder Spacecraft carried with it a small rover, Sojourner, to the Red Planet. When Pathfinder landed, Sojourner became the first wheeled vehicle from Earth to explore another planet in our solar system. Designed to operate on the surface for a week, Sojourner explored the planet for 83 days.
Mars Pathfinder/Sojourner (artist's rendition)
Mounted on the rover’s 5' mast, the Imager for Mars Pathfinder (IMP) camera system was a stereo camera used to provide images of the surface and aid in the navigation of the machine. Two 12-position color filter wheels featured 15 filters optimized for Mars geology, 8 filters for atmospheric and solar studies, and one magnifying filter. Each lens had a focal length of 23mm at f/18. Depth of field was from 1.6' to infinity. The CCD sensor for each lens measured 256 x 256 pixels.
Sojourner also carried two small finger-sized black-and-white cameras, mounted low on the chassis, to show the driving terrain. The 4mm lenses were coupled to a 768 x 484 pixel CCD. Sojourner sent back 16,661 images, including a 360-degree panorama of its landing site.
Various images of the Sojourner rover shot by the Pathfinder cameras have been composited into
the Presidential Panorama. Since the camera's position was consistent, it is possible to see these images
of the rover in the context of the entire landscape. This provides a visual scale for understanding
the sizes and distances of rocks surrounding the lander, as well as a record of the travels of the rover.
Several of the rover images were captured in full color. The rest were colorized using color sampled from those frames.
Mars Polar Lander Launched in 1999, the Mars Polar Lander and Deep Space 2 probes headed to the Red Planet, but contact was lost before the mission could begin. The spacecraft likely crashed into the Martian surface.
Mars Polar Lander (artist's rendition)
Onboard the doomed craft was the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) that was designed to take 10 pictures of the landing event. The 9-element refractive optic camera had a focal length of 7.125mm with a field of view of 73.4 degrees. The camera featured a Kodak CCD sensor with 1024x1024 pixel resolution.
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Lofted toward Mars in 2005, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter continues to study the Red Planet while serving as a relay station for other Mars missions, including the Opportunity rover (see above).
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (artist's rendition)
Equipped with the most powerful telescopic camera ever built to send to a foreign planet, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) is a 3-mirror astigmatic Cassegrain at f/24 with a 12m focal length. There are 14 detector-chip assemblies, staggered with a 48-pixel overlap, which can be combined to create images up to 20000 x 65000 pixels. The camera, in case you wanted to purchase one, cost $31 million to develop.
Frost on a crater slope
The orbiter also carried the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) for visible and UV photography and the Context Imager (CTX) with a wide-area, lower-resolution views, to provide context for the HiRISE camera system.
Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover The Mars Science Laboratory mission's Curiosity rover, the most technologically advanced rover ever built, landed in Mars' Gale Crater the evening of August 5, 2012, PDT. Curiosity's mission was to determine whether the Red Planet ever was, or is, habitable to microbial life. The rover, which is about the size of a MINI Cooper, is equipped with 17 cameras and a robotic arm containing specialized laboratory-like tools and instruments.
The Mast Camera
The Mast Camera on the rover was designed to take single-exposure, color snapshots similar to those taken with a consumer digital camera on Earth. In addition, it has multiple filters for taking sets of monochromatic images. These images are used to analyze patterns of light absorption in different portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. One of the two “Mastcam” camera systems has a moderate-resolution lens; the other camera system has a high-resolution lens for studying the landscape far from the rover. The Mastcam can take high-definition video at 10 frames per second. Its electronics processes images independently of the rover's central processing unit and has an internal data buffer for storing thousands of images or several hours of high-definition video footage for transmission to Earth.
Curiosity "selfie" panorama at the "Mojave" site on Mars' s Mount Sharp
Another camera, the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) provides earthbound scientists with close-up views of the minerals, textures, and structures in Martian rocks, surface debris, and dust. The self-focusing, 1.5" wide camera takes color images of features as small as 12.5 micrometers, smaller than the diameter of a human hair. MAHLI carries white light sources, similar to the light from a flashlight, and ultraviolet light sources, similar to the light from a tanning lamp, making the imager functional both day and night. The ultraviolet light is used to induce fluorescence to help detect carbonate and evaporite minerals, both of which indicate that water helped shape the landscape on Mars.
New Horizons Launched in 2006 to the far reaches of the Kuiper Belt; the New Horizons probe just became the first spacecraft to visit the dwarf planet, Pluto. Onboard is a pair of visible-light cameras: the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) looks far ahead of the spacecraft, and Ralph is a visible and IR camera.
New Horizons (artist's rendition)
Ralph features a 75mm lens at f/8.7 and, to avoid thermal issues, the camera’s mirrors were polished from aluminum sharpened with diamonds.
Phoenix Mission Phoenix launched in 2007 and was a lander sent to the surface of Mars to search for evidence of past or present microbial life. Using a robotic arm, it dug up to half a meter into the Red Planet to collect samples and return them to onboard instruments for analysis, verifying the existence of water-ice in the Martian subsurface. The Phoenix lander ended communications in November 2008, about six months after landing, when its solar panels ceased operating in the dark Martian winter.
The Phoenix Lander (artist's rendition)
The craft utilized a robotic-arm camera (RAC) for close-up color images of the Martian soil and ice. The RAC is a box-shaped imager with a double-Gauss lens system, commonly found in many 35mm cameras, coupled to a CCD. At a 1:1 magnification and closest focus, RAC provided an image resolution of 23 microns per pixel.
Also, the Surface Stereo Imager (SSI), mounted on a mast, provided high-resolution, color, stereo images of the terrain at the landing site and positioning information for use of the arm. The instrument also simulated the resolution of human eyesight using a CCD with 1024 x 1024-pixel images. SSI also had optical and infrared filters.
This image taken by the surface stereo imager on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander
shows the lander's thermal and electrical conductivity probe (TECP), at the end of the Robotic Arm,
on the 46th Martian day, or sol, of the mission (July 11, 2008).
Pioneer Program The Pioneer program sent numerous unmanned craft to explore various parts of our solar system and beyond. The early missions were conducted in the late 1950s and were attempts to escape Earth’s gravitational pull and show that it was possible to reach the moon. Later missions of the 1960s and 1970s explored our solar system, including flyby missions to Jupiter and Saturn.
Data transmission varied greatly from mission to mission. Pioneer 1 carried an image scanning infrared television system to study the Moon's surface to a resolution of 0.5 degrees.
Ranger Missions The Ranger program was a series of unmanned missions with the objective of obtaining the first close-up images of the surface of the Moon. The crafts were to orbit the moon, taking images and transmitting those images to Earth before crash-landing on the surface. Of the nine Ranger missions, the first six ended in failure, but missions 7, 8, and 9 returned thousands of images.
Ranger 7 sent more than 4,300 pictures from six cameras that revealed that craters caused by impact were the dominant features of the Moon's surface—great craters were marked by small ones, and the small with tiny impact pockmarks, as far down in size as could be discerned—about 20". Of the six cameras, two were wide angle and four were “narrow angle.” The “A” camera had an f/1 lens and 25mm focal length and a vidicon target area of 11 x 11mm. The “B” camera had an f/2 lens of 38mm aperture and 76mm focal length. Two of the “P” cameras utilized lenses identical to that of the “A” camera, and two were identical to the lenses used in the “B” camera.
As Ranger 7 impacts the lunar surface, it becomes the first spacecraft to send back
images during this maneuver. More than 4,300 pictures are taken on the way down to its
target, soon named Mare Cognitum, south of the crater Copernicus.
Surveyor Missions The Surveyor projects, from 1966-68, were unmanned landers sent to the moon in preparation for the Apollo missions to follow. Surveyor differed from the earlier Ranger missions in that the probes made soft landings on the moon’s surface. They tested the technology that would be used in later missions and accumulated much data on lunar chemical and soil minerals and returned almost 90,000 images from five separate sites.
Each Surveyor spacecraft carried a television camera and 70mm pictures were obtained at very high resolution. This photography provided information on the nature of the surface terrain in the immediate vicinity of the spacecraft, as well as the number, distribution, and sizes of the craters and boulders in the area. In addition, a non-landing camera platform was used to map the whole moon from orbit.
Despite the more hazardous terrain in the landing area, Surveyor 7 landed without
incident. In addition to acquiring a wide variety of lunar surface data, Surveyor 7 also took pictures
of Earth and performed star surveys. Laser beams from Earth were
successfully detected by the craft's television camera in a special test of laser-pointing techniques.
Surveyor images included wide-angle and narrow-angle panoramas, focus ranging surveys, photometric surveys, special area surveys, and celestial photography.
The Apollo 12 Lunar Module landed near Surveyor 3 on November 19, 1969. Astronauts Conrad and Bean examined the spacecraft, and they brought back about 10 kg of parts of the Surveyor to the Earth, including its TV camera, which is now on permanent display in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Viking Series The Viking 1 and 2 probes, launched in 1975 and both consisted of an orbiter and landers, which safely settled on the surface of Mars. They landed approximately two month apart in late 1976 and operated until 1982 and 1980, respectively.
The Viking Lander camera design was very different from vidicon framing or CCD array cameras. The lander camera was a facsimile camera with a single, stationary photo-sensor array (PSA), and azimuth and elevation scanning mechanisms. A lander image was generated by scanning the scene in two directions (elevation and azimuth) to focus light onto the photo-sensor array. Its two identical cameras were bolted to the top of the lander body.
The boulder-strewn field of red rocks reaches to the horizon
nearly two miles from Viking 2, on Mars's Utopian Plain.
The lenses had a 0.95 cm aperture diameter and 5.37 cm focal length. 4,500 images from the landers and 52,000 pictures from the orbiters were sent back to Earth.
Voyager Series Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were both launched in 1977 and are still actively returning data from the farthest reaches of our solar system and beyond. Voyager 1 has been in interstellar space since August 2012 and is the farthest human-made object from the Sun (and Earth). Voyager 2 has visited its destinations—all four gas giant planets—and is on its way to join its twin.
Voyager (artist's rendition)
The Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) on the Voyager probes is a modified version of the slow-scan vidicon camera designs that were used in the earlier Mariner flights. The ISS consists of two television-type cameras, each with 8 filters in a commandable filter wheel mounted in front of the vidicons.
One system has a low-resolution, 200mm wide-angle lens with an aperture of f/3, while the other has a higher-resolution 1500mm narrow-angle f/8.5 lens. On February 14, 1990, Voyager 1 took the last pictures of the Voyager mission. After that set of portraits, the cameras on Voyager 1 and 2 were switched off and the software controlling them removed from the spacecraft.