James Cameron Sending 3-D Cameras to Mars with Next NASA Rover

New zoom mast cameras could allow the Curiosity rover to take cinematic video sequences in 3-D

James Cameron’s love of science and high-tech cameras has previously shone through with his undersea documentaries — not to mention Titanic or even Avatar. Now the film director is playing “public engagement co-investigator” on NASA’s upcoming SUV-sized rover mission, which will carry full-color digital cameras and zoom lenses — but it’s a race to complete the lenses in time for the mission’s 2011 launch.

Cameron approached NASA administrator Charles Bolden about including the 3-D camera in January, according to the AP. NASA had originally cut the 3-D camera and zoom lens options back in 2007, for budgetary reasons.

But Cameron’s argument that a high-res 3-D camera would boost public interest swayed Bolden to his side. The U.S. space agency recently funded completion of the 3-D and zoom-capable cameras by Malin Space Science Systems, Inc, the company which developed the Mastcams.

Restoring the zoom is not a science issue, although there will be some science benefits,” said Michael Malin, principal investigator for the Mastcam. “The fixed focal length Mastcams we just delivered will do almost all of the science we originally proposed. But they cannot provide a wide field of view with comparable eye stereo.”

That has led to a scramble to build and test the zoom lens cameras before the MSL rover commences final testing in early 2011. The two Mastcams under development would have 15:1 zoom lenses which can image from telephoto (100mm focal length) down to wide-angle (6.5mm focal length).

The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover is slated to carry four science cameras mounted on a remote sensing mast, where they can pan or tilt to take images all around the rover out to the horizon. All of the cameras currently have fixed focal lengths.

By contrast, the zoom lenses would allow for “cinematic video sequences in 3-D on the surface of Mars,” Malin noted. Given our Hubblegasm review of Hubble 3D, it’s safe to say that we’re crossing our fingers for Cameron to get his proper filmmaking tools in time for blastoff to Mars.

Malin Space Science Systems