For the growing number of Mars porn addicts, the quality of the images released by NASA from the newly landed Curiosity rover has been frustratingly low. To paraphrase an old saw: If we can put a rover on Mars, why can't it take pictures that are at least as good as those phone photos we all took of ourselves in the bathroom mirror last week?
Luckily, Mars rover project manager Mike Ravine is here to answer all your questions (well, not here, but at Digital Photography Review):
A number of factors led to the use of 2MP sensors in the main imaging cameras used on NASA's Mars rover, Curiosity, says the project manager responsible for their development. The slow data rates available for broadcasting images back to Earth and the team's familiarity with that family of sensors played a part, says Malin Space Science Systems' Mike Ravine, but the biggest factor was the specifications being fixed as far back as 2004.
Got that? The whole thing has to be done according to laboriously approved government specs, and that means what happened in 2004 sticks with the team for the rest of the project, even when technology changes.
'There's a popular belief that projects like this are going to be very advanced but there are things that mitigate against that. 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.'
I think I speak for space geeks around the world when I say: Head. Desk.
To be fair, Ravine goes on to explain that there are also good scientific reasons why the payoff from a newer, fancier camera probably wouldn't be as impressive as you might think. Two of the scarcest resources in a project like this are experience and data about how technology will respond to extreme conditions, and bandwidth to transmit information back to Earth. So using old camera tech that the engineers were already familiar with was useful. And with photo transmission capacity of just 250 megabits per day, there's only so much we were going to be able to see anyway.
And the rover does have the capacity to produce the most iPhone-like picture of all. A semi-misleading photo of itself, shot from a flatteringly elevated angle:
Still, James Cameron is pissed.