Cameras on 37 Interplanetary Spacecraft

Cameras on 38 Interplanetary Spacecraft

Believe it or not, when a spacecraft leaves the earth with a camera as a part of its scientific suite, there are real-world similarities between the cameras on interplanetary space probes and the cameras we sell at B&H—especially now in the age of digital photography. In this article we will look at all the American spacecraft that have ventured beyond earth orbit and discuss their various camera systems.

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, and not every probe carries a camera. Here we will discuss those imaging systems that are relatively close cousins to what you can find on the shelves of the B&H SuperStore.

1. Cassini

Launched in 1997, Cassini orbited the crown jewel of the solar system, Saturn and its and moons until fall of 2017 when it was intentionally flown into Saturn's atmosphere to prevent an unavoidable possible future collision with the Saturnian moon, Enceladus, which may harbor extraterrestrial life. The Cassini probe was 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 sent back 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!

Saturn and its stately rings


Asteroids hitting Earth aren’t just science fiction, they are science fact. Bodies in the solar system are constantly being bombarded by objects and, when large objects impact Earth, they can unleash unimaginable damage. Launched in November 2021 onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, DART, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, was a spacecraft designed to test multiple planetary defense technologies.

Illustration of the DART spacecraft with the Roll Out Solar Arrays (ROSAs) extended. Each of the two ROSAs is 8.6 meters by 2.3 meters.
Illustration of the DART spacecraft with the Roll Out Solar Arrays (ROSAs) extended. Each of the two ROSAs is 8.6 meters by 2.3 meters.

DART’s onboard camera is named DRACO (Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation), whose design is based on the LORRI imager on the New Horizons spacecraft. The catadioptric Ritchey-Chrétien telescope has a 208mm aperture and f/12.6 aperture and a 2560 x 2160 pixel, panchromatic, front-side illuminated CMOS image sensor. DRACO will detect and help guide DART to Didymos’ moonlet starting at a distance of 50,000 miles.

Schematic of the DART mission shows the impact on the moonlet of asteroid (65803) Didymos. Post-impact observations from Earth-based optical telescopes and planetary radar would, in turn, measure the change in the moonlet’s orbit about the parent body.

Schematic of the DART mission shows the impact on the moonlet of asteroid (65803) Didymos. Post-impact observations from Earth-based optical telescopes and planetary radar would, in turn, measure the change in the moonlet’s orbit about the parent body.

On September 26, 2022, DART tested a kinetic impactor (basically a bullet) on near-Earth binary asteroid (65803) Didymos, which consists of a primary asteroid that is 780m across and its “moonlet” that measures 160m. The impactor slammed into Didymos’s moonlet and changed its orbital period—a mission success!

Asteroids about the size of the moonlet (140m) hitting Earth are a major concern because only about 40% of those bodies have been located and tracked. The DART test gives promise to our future ability to deflect incoming asteroids.

3. Dawn

Launched in 2007, Dawn orbited the protoplanet Vesta (2011) and dwarf planet Ceres (2015) before its ion propulsion system ran out of fuel, in November 2018. Vesta and Ceres are the largest objects in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Due to performance from its efficient engine system, Dawn spacecraft became the first spacecraft to orbit two bodies beyond the Earth-moon system.

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.

Bright spots in Ceres's second mapping orbit

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. Deep Space Program Science Experiment / Clementine

This spacecraft was launched on a Titan II from California, in January 1994, with the goal of testing sensors and spacecraft components for long-duration spaceflight as part of joint project between NASA and the Reagan-era Defense Department Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly known as “Star Wars”). Clementine was the first US spacecraft to visit the moon since Apollo 17, 20 years prior.

A mockup of Clementine at the National Air & Space Museum

Clementine carried a UV/Visible Camera, Near Infrared Camera, Long Wavelength Infrared Camera, a High-Resolution Camera, and two Star Tracker Cameras. The UV/Visible camera was a catadioptric telescope with a six-filter filter wheel and 288 x 384 pixel CCD imager. The Near IR camera was also a 96mm f/3.33 catadioptric telescope with a six-filter wheel, and the Long Wavelength IR camera had a 96mm f/2.67 catadioptric lens. The HiRes camera consisted of a Beryllium telescope and CCD imager. The Star Trackers featured a concentric-optics design with a fiber optic field flattener and 576 x 384 pixel CCD array. These cameras were used for imaging and to verify the spacecraft’s position using celestial navigation. A Charged Particle Telescope and Laser Image Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) system rounded out the equipment suite.

Mosaics of both lunar poles

After leaving lunar orbit, in May 1994, a computer error caused a thruster to fire and placed the spacecraft in an 80 rpm spin. This canceled a follow-on mission to the asteroid Geographos. However, the probe has cemented its place in history by being the first spacecraft to map the entire lunar surface topographically and, 4 years after studying the data, it was revealed that Clementine had discovered water ice in the moon’s deep polar craters—enough to support a lunar colony or create rocket fuel for further space exploration.

7. 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

8. InSight

Launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, in May 2018, InSight touched down on the Red Planet on November 26, 2018. Notably, this is NASA's first West Coast interplanetary launch and, another first, InSight will be accompanied to Mars by two small CubeSats—Mars Cube One or MarCO—nicknamed "Eva" and "Wall-E." Its science objectives are more inner-looking at the planet, and less visual. The lander studied the formation of terrestrial planets by investigating the internal structure of Mars while determining the levels of seismic activity on Mars to gauge tectonic movements and meteor impacts on the surface. Contact with InSight was lost in December 2022 after excessive dust build-up on its solar panels prevented further operation.

Mars InSight

But, even though the craft studied the inside of Mars, it did snap some photos while there. InSight was equipped with two cameras—Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC) and Instrument Context Camera (ICC). The IDC was mounted at the end of a robotic arm—the first interplanetary arm to grasp devices on another planet—and the ICC was mounted below the deck and faces the working instruments.

Both cameras were full-color modified versions of the cameras on the Opportunity and Spirit rovers and were CCDs with 1024 x 1024 resolution. The IDC was aimed by the arm, had a 45-degree field of view, and the capability of making 360-degree panoramic images of the landing site. The ICC had a 120-degree field of view for wide-angle monitoring of the work site.

The two CubeSats were equipped with dual cameras, as well. Both MarCos had a color wide-field engineering camera with a 138-degree field of view. This camera was used to confirm the antenna deployment. And, each CubeSat had a color narrow-field 6.8-degree field of view camera pointed at the UHF antenna. Both cameras had a resolution of 752 x 480 pixels.

An image from Wall-E showing Earth and the moon as the CubeSat speeds towards Mars.

9. Juno

Launched in 2011 and in orbit around Jupiter, the Juno spacecraft features some first-of-its-kind photography social-media interaction. Started in the fall of 2015, JunoCam allowed fans of the mission to help decide the photos the craft will capture while it orbits Jupiter. In fact, the camera was installed on the spacecraft strictly for public engagement purposes. The other instruments will be doing the scientific part.

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 fewer than 100 images on its 33-orbit flight around Jupiter.

A multitude of swirling clouds in Jupiter's dynamic North North Temperate Belt is captured in this image from NASA's Juno spacecraft.
A multitude of swirling clouds in Jupiter's dynamic North North Temperate Belt is captured in this image from NASA's Juno spacecraft.

10. Lucy

Launched on October 16, 2021 from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas V, Lucy is the first spacecraft sent to explore Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids (and one asteroid belt asteroid—52246 Donaldjohanson) over an ambitious 12-year mission that will set a record for the largest number of destinations in a single mission. The Trojans are a group of asteroids in Jupiter’s general orbit that lead and follow the massive planet around the sun.

Lucy, artist's concept
Lucy, artist's concept

Lucy’s main imager, and its most sensitive camera, is the Lucy LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager (L’LORRI)—an 8.2-inch Ritchey–Chrétien telescope with a panchromatic 1024x1024 CCD sensor based on the LORRI imager on the New Horizons spacecraft (see the New Horizons mission, below).

NASA's Lucy mission will explore a record-breaking number of asteroids.
NASA's Lucy mission will explore a record-breaking number of asteroids.

L’Ralph, similar to New Horizon’s Ralph camera, is a 75mm aperture multi-spectral imaging camera that will take color photos of the Trojans and other targets.

11. Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS)

Launched with an Atlas V, in June 2009, along with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (see the LRO mission, below), the LCROSS spacecraft was on a kind of suicide mission to witness the impact of the Atlas V’s Centaur upper stage into a deep crater near the lunar South Pole. After steering the Centaur to its destination, LCROSS separated and followed the Centaur into the crater on October 9, 4 minutes after the Centaur’s impact, flying through and photographing the debris plume while searching for water ice.

LCROSS follows the Atlas V’s Centaur upper stage towards impact with the moon (artist’s rendition).

LCROSS carried a Visible Camera, two Near IR cameras, two Mid-IR cameras, a Visible Spectrometer, two IR Spectrometers, and a Total Luminescence Photometer. The Visible Camera was equipped with a 12mm f/1.2 lens and a 752 x 582 24-bit RGB pixel CCD sensor. After sampling, the final image resolution was 720 x 486.

The LCROSS camera and an image of the Centaur’s impact plume

12. Lunar Orbiter Series

From 1966 through 1967, in the run-up to the manned Apollo moon missions, NASA sent five unmanned spacecraft to orbit the moon, named Lunar Orbiter I through V, with a mission to capture images of the surface. The goal of the first three missions was to survey possible landing sites that would be suitable for the Apollo lunar modules. Meeting the survey goals, the last two probes had more scientific purposes. In all, the entire side of the moon facing Earth was photographed as well as 95% of the far side (not the "Dark Side") of the moon.

Lunar Orbiter

The probes carried film cameras developed by Eastman Kodak like models built for the National Reconnaissance Office. They were armed with a Pacific Optical Company 610mm f/5.6 lens and a Schneider Kreuznach 80mm f/2.8 Xenotar lens and took 70mm film. The 35-lb cameras were like those that were carried on reconnaissance aircraft. The film was developed in the spacecraft using a single-solution Bimat process, and dried. Once developed, the film was scanned and transmitted to Earth.

Lunar Orbiter Camera

Lunar Orbiter I sent the very first photo of the Earth taken from lunar orbit on August 23, 1966. Currently, the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project is preserving and digitizing these remarkable images.

The first image of Earth from the Moon

13. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO)

Launched in 2009 to the moon piggy-backed with LCROSS (see the LCROSS mission, above), 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 the MRO mission, below).

22 NAC oblique view of Tycho crater highlights the summit area of this spectacular image. The central peak complex is about 15 km wide, southeast to northwest (left to right in this view).

NAC oblique view of Tycho crater highlights the summit area of this spectacular image. The central peak complex is about 15 km wide, southeast to northwest (left to right in this view).

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.

Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover

14. Mars 2020

The Mars 2020 Mission and Perseverance rover launched to Mars from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on board an Atlas V-541 rocket on July 30, 2020 and landed successfully, on February 18, 2021. The Perseverance rover is similar to the Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in 2012 (see the MSL mission, below) but with more advanced equipment (obviously). It is 10' long and, if you are keeping score at home, the largest and heaviest Mars rover ever built by NASA. The intricate landing procedure was similar to the complex parachute/rocket/sky-crane maneuver that set Curiosity down on the Red Planet and was known in social media circles as the “Seven Minutes of Terror.”

Does Perseverance have cameras? Um, yes. It has 19 cameras with 23 “eyes!” This sets a record for the number of cameras on an interplanetary exploration!

Perseverance is searching for signs of ancient microbial life, is characterizing the planet's geology and climate, and is collecting carefully selected and documented rock and sediment samples for possible return to Earth. This work will pave the way for human exploration beyond the Moon.

Before we dive into the camera details, as a former military helicopter pilot, I am excited to report that a little helicopter named Ingenuity rode on board Perseverance and became the first controlled aircraft to fly on another planet (that we know of)!

Artist rendition of the Ingenuity helicopter

OK, let’s talk about these record-setting cameras… which we can break down into three categories: Descent Imaging Cameras, Engineering Cameras, and Science Cameras.

Artist rendition of the “Sky Crane” landing

When Curiosity executed its complex and nerve-wracking touchdown on the Red Planet, there was one camera recording the event—the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI). Perseverance adds commercially available cameras and a microphone to record the journey—one looking up to record the parachute deployment from the descent stage, a camera looking down from the descent stage at the lander, a rover camera looking up to see the descent stage operation, and a rover camera looking down at the rapidly approaching Martian surface.

The main Engineering Camera is the dual color stereo Navigation Cameras on the rover’s mast—Navcams. The lenses are 16.5" apart. They can see a golf ball-sized target from 82' away. The Navcam’s sensor provides a 20MP 5120 x 3840 pixel image. Navigation cameras on previous rovers were 1MP black-and-white imagers. This is quite an upgrade!

The CacheCam is a single camera that creates microscopic images to catalog sample materials as they are stored in tubes and sealed.

The first Science Camera is the Mastcam-Z color camera that rides atop the rover’s mast at the height of a 6.5' tall person. It can swivel 360º and straight up and down. Two lenses are separated by 9.5" to provide stereo vision for the 1600 x 1200 pixel sensor. The “Z” on the camera name designates its 3:1 zoom capability.

Perseverance’s SuperCam examines rocks and soils with a combination of camera, laser, and spectrometers. From a distance of 20' away, it can fire the laser at targets as small as a pencil point. It is known as a micro-imager and not closely related to the digital cameras with which we are familiar.

The other Science Cameras are PIXL, SHERLOC, and WATSON, which are all used in sample analysis.

Last, the Ingenuity helicopter carries two small B&W digital cameras on board for navigation.

15. Mariner Series

The Mariner program, conducted from 1962 to 1973, consisted of seven interplanetary probes designed to explore the inner solar system—visiting Mercury, Venus, and Mars. Ten missions were planned—seven were successful. The Mariner probes accomplished many firsts on their flights, including the first interplanetary fly-by, first orbit of another planet, and the first gravity assist maneuver. The intrepid Mariner probes laid important groundwork for the Pioneer, Voyager, and Viking missions that followed.

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.

16. 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.

17. 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. Opportunity sent back data for an amazing 14 years after it embarked on a 3-month mission until a planet-wide dust storm in 2018 coated its solar panels and ended the rover's 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.

On May 19, 2005, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captured this stunning view as the Sun sank below the rim of Gusev crater, on Mars.

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.

18. 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 Mars Observer mission, 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.

"Husband Hill"

19. 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 Mars Global Surveyor mission, above).

Mars Observer (artist's rendition)

20. 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.

Image of Udzha Crater, on Mars

21. 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.

22. 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.

23. Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)

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 Mars Exploration Rover mission, 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.

24. Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity Rover

The Mars Science Laboratory mission's Curiosity rover landed in Mars's Gale Crater the evening of August 5, 2012. 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 Mount Sharp, Mars

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.

25. MESSENGER (Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging)

Our first spacecraft to give us an in-depth study of Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, Messenger launched in August 2004 on board a Delta II and entered Mercury’s orbit in 2011. Until then, Mercury’s only visitor had been Mariner 10, a full 36 years prior. Before entering orbit around the tiny planet, MESSENGER performed an Earth flyby, two flybys of Venus, and three flybys of Mercury on its seven-year fuel-saving journey.

MESSENGER at Mercury (artist’s rendition)

Operating near room temperature (68°F) behind a sunshade to protect it from temperatures of approximately 840°F, MESSENGER’s camera system was known as the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS). The MDIS contained a Narrow-Angle Camera (NAC) and Wide-Angle Camera (WAC). The NAC featured a 550mm lens. The WAC camera had a focal length of 78mm and a 12-position filter wheel. Interestingly, the WAC’s twelfth filter was a broadband filter that allowed the WAC to be used for celestial navigation. Both cameras fed a single 1024 x 1024-pixel CCD sensor.

Mercury’s Rembrandt Basin

Following two mission extensions, MESSENGER burned its remaining propellant to de-orbit the planet and crashed into the surface, in April 2015.

26. NEAR Shoemaker

Launched from Cape Canaveral on board a Delta II on February 17, 1996, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) Shoemaker headed to the near-Earth asteroid 433 Eros, flying by asteroid 253 Mathilde on its way. NEAR Shoemaker became the first spacecraft to successfully enter orbit around an asteroid and the first to land on one when it touched down on Eros on February 12, 2001.

Artist rendering of NEAR Shoemaker orbiting Eros
Artist rendering of NEAR Shoemaker orbiting Eros

NEAR’s camera—the Multi-Spectral Imager (MSI)—consisted of a 168mm f/3.4 telescope, filter wheel, and 244 x 550 pixel CCD sensor that captured more than 160,000 images during the mission. Although it was not designed as a lander, it became the first spacecraft to land on an asteroid, and NEAR operated on the surface of Eros for two weeks after touchdown.

Eros photographed by NEAR Shoemaker’s MSI camera
Eros photographed by NEAR Shoemaker’s MSI camera

27. New Horizons

Launched in 2006 to the far reaches of the Kuiper Belt; the New Horizons probe 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. Following its Pluto fly-by, New Horizons headed deeper into the Kuiper Belt and imaged the snowman-like 486958 Arrokoth during a close pass. The spacecraft plans to study more than two-dozen more Kuiper Belt objects as it heads away from Earth.

New Horizons (artist's rendition)

The LORRI camera is an 8.20 in aperture Ritchey–Chrétien telescope with a monochromatic 1024 x 1024 pixel CCD sensor.

Ralph features a 75mm lens with a 684mm effective focal length at f/8.7 and, to avoid thermal issues, the camera's mirrors were polished from aluminum sharpened with diamonds.

Pluto's Heart


If there is a known asteroid in the solar system that has a chance of making Hollywood extinction-level-event-from-a-meteor-strike movies come true, it is 101955 Bennu. To learn more about this potential visitor, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft visited Bennu in 2018 and successfully brought a small sample back to earth in 2023.

An acronym covering Origins/Spectral Interpretation/Resource Identification/Security/Regolith Explorer—OSIRIS-REx—was launched atop an Atlas V on September 8, 2016, from Cape Canaveral, with a trio of visible light cameras on board. The OCAMS Instrument Suite consists of the MapCam, PolyCam, and SamCam.


MapCam is the medium-range camera used to search for satellites of Bennu, outgassing plumes, provide color mapping, and provide images to create topographic maps. It has a filter wheel and five-element 125mm f/3.3 lens system for panchromatic (clear) and wide-band spectral imaging in the blue, green, red, and near-IR.

PolyCam is a long-range 20cm Ritchey-Chrétien telescope with a 629mm focal length and f/3.15 aperture. Designed to locate Bennu from 2 million kilometers away, it served to map out hazards on different landing areas and performed high-resolution imaging of the surface at short range.

SamCam’s six-element 24mm f/5.5 lens (with filter wheel) is the optic that watched and verified the touch-and-go on Bennu, as well as imaged the sampling mechanism after the sample was collected.

The SamCam captures the moment of touchdown on Bennu. The spacecraft collected some of the asteroid and backed away after this event.
The SamCam captures the moment of touchdown on Bennu. The spacecraft collected some of the asteroid and backed away after this event.

All three cameras use identical 1024 x 1024 active pixel CCD detectors.

OSIRIS-REx’s sample of Bennu returned to Earth on Fin’s fourth birthday, September 24, 2023, where it parachuted to a soft landing in Utah.

A 12-image mosaic of Bennu by the PolyCam at a distance of 15 miles.
A 12-image mosaic of Bennu by the PolyCam at a distance of 15 miles.

29. Parker Solar Probe

Launched in August 2018 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a Delta IV rocket, the Parker Solar Probe will speed past Venus seven times to slow it down for orbit around the Sun. Designed to study the Sun with unprecedented detail, the probe will get closer to the gigantic fusion reaction at the center of our Solar System than any spacecraft before it. One major goal of the mission is to determine why the Sun's corona is hotter further from the surface of the Sun. Mercury orbits the sun at a mean distance of 36 million miles. The Parker Solar Probe will be catching rays at only 3.8 million miles from the Sun making 24 passes over the next 7 years.

Parker Solar Probe (artist’s rendition)

One of the chief science instruments on board is a camera—the Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR). There isn't a ton of data on the optics of the camera, but they capture images through one of two nested wide-field telescopes (each with a different focal length) with 2,000 x 2,000 pixel APS CMOS "detectors." The cameras will, among other things, derive the 3D structure of the solar corona and measure the physical properties of elements of the corona and inner heliosphere.

Parker Solar Probe

Although very close to the sun, a sunshield will keep the instruments at a safe 85ºF operating temperature.

30. 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.

Stereo imager

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).

31. 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.

32. Psyche

Sent spaceward atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on October 13, 2023, the Psyche spacecraft is heading toward metallic asteroid 16 Psyche as the first spacecraft to study a metallic object in space—previous missions have headed to rocky, icy, or gaseous planets and asteroids.

Psyche carries two identical cameras known as the Multispectral Imagers—cameras designed for high-resolution images at up to <20m/pixel designed to acquire geologic, compositional, and topographic data. The identical second camera is a backup for mission-critical navigation use.

Each 1600 x 1200-pixel CCD sensor camera has a 148mm f/1.8 lens with an 8-filter wheel with a field of view of 4.6° x 3.4°.

Following a Mars flyby and gravity assist, Psyche’s solar-electric engine is scheduled to arrive at 16 Psyche in 2029 and orbit the asteroid until late 2031.

33. 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.

Launched in February 2020 on board an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Solar Orbiter is a cooperative effort between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) launched to investigate how the Sun creates and controls the ever-changing space environment surrounding our solar system—the heliosphere. The probe will orbit the Sun every 168 days, once it reaches the central star of our system, and join the Parker Solar Probe (see Parker Solar Probe mission, above) in investigating and unlocking some of the Sun’s most perplexing secrets.

Artist rendition of the Solar Orbiter

The Solar Orbiter has 10 separate instruments, all working in conjunction to provide the spacecraft’s suite of data. Of those instruments, the Metis (coronograph), PHI (Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager), and SoloHi (Solar Orbiter Heliospheric Imager) are all on board to take photos.

Solar Orbiter

Metis sees both ultraviolet and visible light with intensified active pixel sensors at 1024 x 1024 and 2048 x 2048 resolution, respectively. The PHI consists of two telescopes that send their images to a 2048 x 2048 CMOS digital sensor. And SoloHi is a visible light telescope that projects images to a mosaic of four 2048x1920 detectors that are read out independently.

34. Stardust

Stardust was the first spacecraft to return a sample of a celestial body (beyond the Moon) to Earth. Launched on February 7, 1999 atop a Delta II from Cape Canaveral, the probe’s primary mission was to collect dust samples from the comet Wild 2, as well as cosmic dust particles in deep space. En route to Wild 2, Stardust also flew by asteroid 5535 Annefrank and the spacecraft, on an extended mission profile (Stardust-NExT), also flew by comet Tempel 1 (see the Deep Impact mission, above), in February 2011, before the mission ended in March 2011.

Artist renditions of Stardust approaching Wild 2

Stardust’s Navigation Camera (NC) was based on hardware originally built and tested for the Voyager probes. The Petzval-type refractor had a 200mm focal length at f/3.5, filter system, and field flattener. The lens fed images to a CCD sensor that was identical to the one carried by Cassini’s ISS (see Cassini mission, above). A smaller Star Camera was used for attitude control.

Stardust’s mission return capsule landed back on Earth on January 15, 2006—landing in the Utah desert.

Samples of comet and cosmic dust arrived on Earth in this capsule.
Samples of comet and cosmic dust arrived on Earth in this capsule.

35. 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.

36. 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 months 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.

37. Voyager Series

The legendary explorers of our solar system, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were both launched in 1977 and are still actively returning data from interstellar space after their grand tours of our family of planets! 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 entered interstellar space in November 2018. The Voyager probes’ primary mission was the exploration of Jupiter and Saturn after which Voyager 1 was flung off the ecliptic towards the unknown. Voyager 2 continued on and gave us the first close-up tour Uranus and Neptune.

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.

Voyager snapped a photo of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

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.

Images courtesy NASA, JPL, APL


Great article. Thanks for sharing!!

Hi Miguel,

Thanks for the compliments and thanks for reading!



Fantastic article. So many new things came to know. Thanks B&H for sharing such informative article.

Thanks for the kind words, Sanjib!



Very informative and fun to read article. Thank you!


Thank you for reading and thanks for the kind words, Adam!



Soy aficionado a la fotografía desde hace 55 años y el articulo que publican me parece extraordinario y conmovedor; lo que es  el ser humano y lo que es realmente el pueblo de los Estados Unidos de América 

¡Gracias por las amables palabras y gracias por leer Explora!


I had the enormous privilege to work on the Viking Lander PSA scanners. Not your traditional camera but rather a rotating slit transferring light to a pivoting mirror and then to a bank of diodes. Awesome work for a young engineer in the early 70's. Previously the same company, Itek, had developed a high resolution mapping camera for Apollo missions. I spent several years working on those cameras. 

This article is exceptional. My great passion is astronautics and space exploration. By reading this article it is easy to understand the high complexity of space missions: if you only think about the imaging systems, you can assess the science and technolgy around the space probes and the manned spaceflights. Congratulations!



Thank you, Alberto!

I think it is safe to say that there is absolutely no part of space travel that is simple. Complexity is found around every turn when designing, building, and operating spacecraft.

Thanks for reading!

Many thanks for pulling all this together in one concise  piece!  It is astounding to realize that all this has taken place in about 50 years!  And sad to see the dwindling of this kind of exciting exploration of our corner of space as NASA struggles to gain adequate funding to keep interplanetary missions  in the queue for the next couple decades. That suggestion about an article on the new ground-based telescopes and the imaging equipment used there is a great idea!

Hey James,

We are glad you liked the article and your second motion for a ground-based article has been noted in the record!

Thanks for reading!

I agree with your reader who described this as a marvellous compendium of images and information.  

Thanks David! John and I are glad you enjoyed it! It was a fun article to research and write!

 Impresionante. Cuanta tecnologia y cuando llegara a lo cotidiano y las ciencias? Me motivaron para ver sobre impulsores ionicos. Repitan cosas similares.

Hola O.,

Sí, propulsores de iones son frescos! ¡Gracias por leer!

Many thanks for an excellent article, though it bit into my sleep time! My feeble mind is longing for a timeline that compares what technology was commonly available at the time versus what the mission teams came up with for each package. These people were geniuses in coming up with the right lens, filters, capturing, storing and transmitting images. It boggles the mind. The greatest thing about these images, isn't what they show, but the further questions that they raise by what they show. Very exciting!

Thanks for this excellent summary and the photo selections, especially the sun from Mars.

Someone asked about manufacturers.  Perkin-Elmer was a manufacturer for some telescopes used on earth-orbiting satellites.

Hey Paul,

Thanks for the comments! I'll credit our graphics colleague Jay Rosen with selecting the images from the rich database from NASA and JPL and APL.

Thanks for the info on Perkin-Elmer and thanks for reading!

Fantastic images, thank you !

Thanks, Edson! I wish I could take credit for the photos! 

These are spectacular views!  It's amazing that so much of the Solar System and beyond has been explored since the first Sputnik satellite of October, 1957. But in order for manned spaceflight to be pratical, a new method of travel will have to be discovered.  But we've already exceeded more than some science fiction accounts, so I know that someday, space travel to distant destinations will become part of what is perceived as possible.

Save me a seat, Marshall! I would love to hang out in orbit around Saturn for a while...just taking photos like the Cassini probe has been doing!

Thanks for reading, and for more images, spend some time on the NASA and JPL and APL websites! A visual feast well worth the time!

Thanks guys for a really informative (not to mention cool) article.

No worries, Jim! Glad you enjoyed it!

Thnks for this awesome article. It was a joy to learn about the eyes of our USISP.

Hey J,

You are welcome! Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

Todd and John,

Thanks for this article. I had always wondered how the earlier (Pre-digital) missions, transmitted the pictures they took home. Quite different from the early Corona spy satellites ejecting their film cannisters. What would be cool would be to recover the 70mm film from the Surveyors. NASA needs more $$$ so SpaceX, Orbital, Blue Origin and the rest can get us back up there! Excellent article and quite timely.



Hey Rick,

When we get the film from the Surveyors, let's grab the Hasselblads that the Apollo astronauts left behind, too!

Thanks for reading!


Thanks for the great article.  Worked for Hughes Aircraft Co., back in the day, who was the prime contractor on the Survivor space craft.

Hey Gary,

Thanks for reading! Great company...Hughes. They made some great stuff.

GoogleEarth/Mars can't find Udza Crater???

Whoops! Sorry...type-o in the caption!

It is the Udzha Crater. It should be fixed shortly.

This article showcases B&H depth. Depth is very reassuring to a buyer.

Thanks for the compliment, Bob! And, thanks for reading!


I believe the article was restricted to unmanned spacecraft and unmanned cameras on manned craft. The Hasselblad were the Apollo handhelds, correct? Great pictures, but not in the scope of the article. Todd, John care to jump in?




Hey Rick,

You are correct. It is outside the scope of this article. Thanks for having our back!

Hey Greg,

Rick is correct. We wanted to focus on unmanned interplanetary probes for this article.

And, FYI, if you are looking, many of the Apollo Hasselblad cameras were left on the moon!

Thanks for sharing the space science


Thanks for reading!

Bleeping spectacular. Thanks for the great article, made my day!

Thank you, Federico! Very bleeping glad you enjoyed it!

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