Curiosity Photos: Megapixels Aren’t Everything, But They Help

Mars’ Mount Sharp, above, has been compared to the American Grand Canyon. All images courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech 


A color-corrected image from NASA’s 100- Mast Camera highlights the layers on Mount Sharp.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS 


Another shot of Mars from the 34-mm Mast Camera aboard Curiosity.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS 

In the past few days, the full-color Mast Camera pictures have finally begun coming back from the Mars rover Curiosity, which landed just over three weeks ago.

Surprisingly, these were taken with a two-megapixel camera, Extreme Tech reports. That’s right. Both of Curiosity’s color “high resolution” cameras actually have only two megapixels. For those of you without a digital photography bent, this technology went out somewhere between the dinosaurs and the turn of the millennium, so the news that the U.S. government just spent billions of dollars to send seriously outdated camera equipment to the Red Planet has been making waves in the tech world.

Extreme Tech, though, does a good job of explaining some of the reasons NASA opted to send not one, but two color, high-res two-megapixel cameras to Mars. The main ones? Data transmission issues, parts (two other cameras aboard also use the same sensors), no perceived need to capture movement (guess the NASA scientists aren’t too worried about encountering Martians), and the hassle of preparing equipment to withstand extreme conditions.

Megapixel count has long been a bone of contention among camera nerds, who tend to see it as more of a marketing gimmick than a reliable indicator of device performance. Generally speaking, when you’re talking about anything you’re going to see on a computer screen, you don’t need big numbers. When it comes to camera selection, the entire package, including software, lenses and sensors, is a great deal more important. Megapixels are simply one component of a much “bigger picture.”

That’s also why a high-megapixel cell phone camera is still  no serious replacement for a good-quality camera and lenses, despite this silly commercial. Phones simply have less space to put everything needed for a top-notch picture, and even though photo technology has improved dramatically in recent years for cell phone users, the ability to share images conveniently is still considered more important than the ability to capture moving objects, shoot from a distance, or function in low light.

But these arguments fail to account for the differences among media. From a publishing perspective, the Curiosity cameras are lacking, because if you’re going to print images, megapixels do matter. In print photography, although eight megapixels would be passable in most cases, 12 or more is better. Try blowing up any low-resolution image and printing it onto a beautiful poster, and you’ll understand why.

It would appear, then, that print quality requirements were not a priority for Curiosity, whose main purpose is, after all, scientific exploration. One would think that with firsthand knowledge of the pace of modern technology, $2.5 billion to spend and years to develop, it would have occurred to somebody at NASA that perhaps the camera should have been a later project addition, but apparently that was not the case. There’s no denying that the image

s coming back from Curiosity are incredibly impressive as is.

NASA announced last week that InSight, a new $425 million mission to examine the Mars interior, has been scheduled for 2016. Several instruments are being developed for that spacecraft, which is supposed to carry two cameras. It would sure be nice if at least one of them got an upgrade, but since we’re still in a recession, I’m not holding my breath.


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