Why the Mars Curiosity Rover’s Cameras Are Lame by Today’s Standards

The first self-portrait captured by the rover

Ever since NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars and started beaming back photographs earlier this week, people have been wondering, “why are the photos so bad?” The criticism seems merited: consumers these days are snapping great high-res photographs using phones that cost just hundreds of dollars, yet NASA can’t choose a camera with more than 2-megapixels of resolution for their $2.5 billion mission?

In an interview with dpreview, project manager Mike Ravine of Malin Space Science Systems — the company that provided three of the rover’s main cameras — explains that there were a couple main reasons behind the “lame” cameras: data transfer and fixed specifications.

For data transfer, the rover uses something called an Ultra High Frequency (UHF) transmitter to beam photos back to its mother planet. The data is beamed from the rover’s UHF antenna to a couple spacecrafts orbiting Mars, and then from those crafts back to researchers here on Earth.

This channel can only transfer about 250 megabits of data per day (~31 megabytes). Given the fact that this “data plan” is shared by other instruments on the rover as well — a “family plan”, if you will — you can see why it’s beneficial to shoot lower-res images.

Another big hindrance to better image quality is the fact that the rovers specifications need to be set in stone early on. Since these projects generally take a number of years before the missions are launched, it’s easy for the chosen equipment to become somewhat outdated by the time the launch date rolls around. Ravine states,

These designs were proposed in 2004, and you don’t get to propose one specification and then go off and develop something else. 2MP with 8GB of flash [memory] didn’t sound too bad in 2004. But it doesn’t compare well to what you get in an iPhone today.

The lower megapixel count actually doesn’t affect that much: to obtain higher resolution photographs, NASA can always shoot multi-exposure panoramas that are stitched together in post. That’s precisely what they’re doing:

A section of the first color 360-degree panorama shot by the rover

Ravine also mentions that zoom lenses were once considered for inclusion in the rover’s camera bag, but were abandoned after design issues arose.

Mars rover camera project manager explains 2MP camera choice [DPReview]

  • David Tribby

    Stitching lower res images makes complete sense. (But) I would think the camera systems would be build in such a way that the technology could be upgraded in advance of a launch date…

  • Shawn Parker

    Lame? Wrong! They’re on Mars!

  • Norm Cooper

    gotta send a manned mission to change the 3.25″ floppies

  • Mark

    Just to clarify, the panorama images are made up of thumbnails. There ARE high resolution versions of these files but they are currently being stored in the camera itself. In order for them to be transmitted back to Earth, the high resolution photographs must first be copied from the camera to the rover’s memory. Because the rover is transmitting (and receiving updates) during these initial stages, there isn’t much room to piggyback hi-res photos for public relations purposes. Once the rover’s software has been updated and vital telemetry is sent, then we should start seeing more “consumer-ready” images. Right now data is taking priority over non-essential images.

  • Zak Henry

    Unfortunately there is a real need for well outlined constraints because of the massive redundancies put into a system like the rover. We can thank a strict set of specs for the fact that the rover isn’t a smoking pile of rubble. While it would be nice to chuck in the latest camera, there isn’t the time to test the entire system inside out, how it could affect every other system on board.

  • branden rio

    Thank you

  • Neoracer Xox

    Kinda misleading the way they showed that picture, Curiosity has SEVENTEEN Cameras on board with varying functions, including stereo color cams. We’re gonna get an amazing show to come. Thank god there was no kill switch on board or Obama’s team woulda hit it mid flight..

  • Ivan

    Pixel peeping has finally reached Mars!

    I was reading comments on DPR, and it is amazing how many people do not understand that the rover is not a consumer electronics product that can be returned to a store and exchanged for a new one if faulty. The rover is a high-precision scientific instrument designed to fly to another planet only once with no engineering option to upgrade, replace, fix, exchange for another one, or “switch brands” and go to competition if scientists conclude this one sucks.

    After all, all space missions have comparable cameras: low on megapixels, slow, mainly monochromatic, some with filter wheels. So, do we like pictures received from other Mars rovers and orbiters? Of course we do, in fact they are stunning! Expect Curiosity to do even better. Case closed.

  • Wolpertinger

    So after reading the linked article the biggest reason for having these low-resolution cameras is that the specifications were set in stone in 2004. Wow.

  • Anis Mohiuddin

    Still High resolution Curiosity will persist.

  • Adam

    And if Obama funded this you’d be whining about how he stole money from you personally to fund frivolous projects. Go back to getting teabagged, will ya?

  • Why

    2004 Timeline for digital photography:
    • Kodak announce that they will no longer be producing film
    • 2-3Mp compact cameras become the standard for picture taking
    but still average £200
    • Nikon launches the 6.1 Mp D70 SLR to rival the Canon EOS
    300Dat £1000 and RAW file capture comes of age.
    • Manufacturers start to promote high-resolution compact cameras
    (6Mp+) that include lithium ion batteries and tilting screens
    • ICI introduces Olmec inkjet paper offering photo-realistic images
    at budget pricing

  • Why

    So they were 800GBP short? Why not use better camera, take low res pics and if you need you can take better ones?

  • Obama 2012

    Clearly the lowest resolution thing on this page is your ability to think for yourself. Parroting Fox doesn’t make you nearly as clever as you think you are.

  • WKYA_Radio

    You’re a dick. Go hump your Romney pillow and keep the sane conversations to non hacks who can differentiate between a civil discussion and some dum dum who was just itching to get his political point across.

    You’re a nobody with no record of anything -just another a_hole with an opinion. youre so unique. I feel sorry for your clients, and some of your friends for having to put up with you.

  • Jake

    Mars Curiosity Rover II, scheduled to take off in 2018, will have a full stock of Instagram filters, plus a few random holes in the body for artistic light leaks.

  • Cahsing

    The best camera is the one that’s with you….

  • Neoracer Xox

    wow so much love for Obama..what did he do for us again? Cant wait till we’re all in Fema camps when the economy REALLY collapses next year..cya’ll there!

  • Neoracer Xox

    wow so much love for Obama..what did he do for us again? Cant wait till we’re all in Fema camps when the economy REALLY collapses next year..cya’ll there!

  • zbeast

    31 megabytes a day? wow and you though your AT&T data-cap sucked.

  • geezlouise

    THere are so many places on the internet where people of no imagination can leave parrot comments. Why not grace one of those with your special way of thinking?

  • Joe Smith

    Neoracer Xox it’s not love for Obama you’re feeling but rather hatred towards ignorance and bigotry.

    Having issues with a political candidate/elected official is one thing. Hating a political candidate/elected official to the point that you have to introduce your personal feelings and political views about said candidate into discussions that have nothing to do with said person shows a level of self-absorption and narcissism that most people don’t like.


    my qualm about this is not that the pics a low res, but all the photos are of the rover itself, its wheel or just dirt. couldn’t they have tilted up the camera a bit? i still think these where taken in the Arizona desert. im just saying

  • Keiran Blackwell

    They’re conducting a visual inspection of the vehicle, it hasn’t yet begun it’s mission. The EDL team still has responsibility for the rover.

  • Keiran Blackwell

    The biggest reason was the bandwidth available, early spec decisions required for redundancies were also necessary.

  • David Tribby

    for the love of God when will this phrase die.

  • David Tribby

    6 people voting down, really?? just for hoping they’d have a way to upgrade gear. smh

  • youdidask

    about the same time as “for the love of God”?

  • Pete.

    This is what I do not get 2 mega-pixel cameras were low standard in 2004 they could easily set in 6mp but main reason for using low res cam is bandwidth (30 something MB a day), so how come stitching together few pics takes less mb than one big picture? What compression are they using? If I were to save bandwidth I would install on board automated software that splits one big compressed file (like 6mp pic) in to parts and then send them bit by bit, if they were worried about money HJsplit is free. What I mean is if they us for example jpg format – every picture has jpg specific data and actual picture data so if you take 50 small pictures to stitch them in one big panorama you end up sending that specific compression data 50 times, while if you used 1 high-res picture you would only send that info once. Plus compression ratio would be better on 1 High res pic than 50 small added together. I will never believe that people who worked on it did not know about it, I will rather think that they used low res for a reason that might be not so obvious, I wonder what we are not to see. On completely different note I have a question: If Hubble telescope can take stunning (even if only greyscale) pictures of far away galaxies why we cannot use it to photograph surface of planets in solar system? And for good sake, think about it: if we are getting rock samples from moon, why we are not getting beautiful high res pictures? is it also because of bandwidth? If we can bring back half a kilo stone we could bring back 0.2kg camera.

  • Markus Wolpert

    Hy Pete,
    this isn’t a consumer computer up there :) Its 8-bit and has to work after being exposed to radiation, solar winds, heat, cold, beeing tossed around quite heavy, …. You can’t simply install some consumer software over there. There are some fancy programming standards involved for space program software – standards that most of the commercial software products don’t reach. Thats for software.
    For hardware its nearly the same – why taking a risky brand new 8MP sensor when you can take the failsafe proven 2mp sensor and stitch a bit. And they stitch it here on earth because of computing power and memory. More memory and a faster CPU needs more power – and thats a limited ressource if you are on another planet.

  • kendon

    that comes down to just under 3 kilobits/sec. guess the specs for the modem were set next thing after WWII ended…

  • Army Navy

    that and it is all fake

  • Solfeggio

    The answer is disinformation. Every modern reader shoukd be familiar with buffering, and there is no reason why images could not be tranmitted beyond 2 mp through myriad technologies. The true reason is because NASA cannot afford to let us view their hoaxes too close. Just research how Curiosity landed and you will get a rude awakening. If you are skeptical, that is okay. But research yourself and determine if all the datapoints make sense.

  • plaintruthforidiots

    What a joke – “it’s 8-bit”. Sure it is. Are you serious? Their laughable joke about the 2MP sensor size being set in 2004 is ridiculous – I can plug anything into my PC, a 13MP camera, a 100MP camera (if it existed), ANYTHING, so you’re telling us that Curiosity’s cameras don’t plug into an INTERFACE? You’re telling us that NASA custom made the CCD chips? Of course not. They’re talking rubbish. Why would a “brand new 8mp” sensor be less reliable than a “failsafe proven” (LOL) 2MP sensor? More FUD.

    You’re an idiot, and noone believes you.

  • plaintruthforidiots

    The other huge problem with Curiosity is the fact that it can only move at a pathetic 30m per hour. The whole design is wrong – they know the surface of Mars has rocks and boulders all over it, they should have made a design that could roll in any direction (shaped like a ball, perhaps) and that could therefore never get stuck, no matter what rocks it came across.

  • ThisIsNoise16

    Think about how big that machine would be, how unbalanced it would be. That 30mph is divided over a whole 2 years. Plus, you’re missing the point that was made in there article. Technology changes over time, and the amount of power they could put into that thing was limited.
    But come on, a ball shaped rover? Why not just have sphere-shaped cars?
    Leave it to the professionals who’ve spent their lives studying this and know what they’re doing, I’m pretty sure they would’ve considered that already.

  • mars

    It cost billions, don’t make excuses for a horrible mission so far

  • yeti paw prints

    Why do people always decide anything beyond their own minimal intelligence is “fake”, it is fantastic, not fake.

  • Paul_Rand

    “For cryin out loud”, will never go out of style.