James Cameron to develop 3D camera for Mars rover

Movie director James Cameron, of Avatar and Titanic fame, is helping to build a 3-D camera for the next robotic rover that NASA will send to Mars.

NASA announced this month that Cameron is working with Malin Space Science Systems Inc. of San Diego to build an updated camera that, if completed in time, will be installed on the Mars Science Laboratory rover , which has been dubbed Curiosity . The rover’s cameras will be the machine’s “science-imaging workhorse,” according to the space agency.

Curiosity is scheduled to be launched in 2011.

Earlier this month, Malin delivered two cameras to be installed on the rover’s main mast. The cameras, which are set up for high-definition color video, are designed to take images of the Martian surface surrounding Curiosity , as well as of distant objects.

NASA, however, has provided Malin with funding to work with Cameron to build alternatives of these two cameras – both would be 3D and would have zoom lenses.

“Restoring the zoom is not a science issue, although there will be some science benefits,” said Michael Malin, who is working on the Malin camera team, in a statement. “The fixed focal length [cameras] 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. With the zoom [cameras], we’ll be able to take cinematic video sequences in 3D on the surface of Mars. This will give our public engagement co-investigator, James Cameron, tools similar to those he used on his recent 3D motion picture projects.”

Cameron’s Avatar , which is the highest-grossing movie in history, is widely considered to be the most ambitious 3D film ever produced.

Engineers, teaming up with Cameron, are just beginning work on the new 3D cameras being built for Curiosity , according to NASA. To make it on the new rover, they will have to be designed, assembled and tested before NASA begins its final testing of the rover early next year.

Curiosity is an SUV-sized super rover that will carry cameras, chemistry instruments, environmental sensors and radiation monitors to investigate the Martian surface. According to NASA, all of these instruments are designed to help scientists figure out whether life ever existed on Mars and prepare to send humans to the Red Planet.

The new super rover was scheduled to be sent to Mars in 2009 but its launch has been delayed by funding problems.

NASA has been heavily focused on exploring Mars with two rovers, the Phoenix Mars Lander and anorbiter already studying the planet.

And with the success that NASA has had working on Mars, there has been a lot of excitement brewing to send up a new one.

The two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which have worked on Mars, are some of the best pieces of technology that the Jet Propulsion Lab has ever built, said Bruce Banerdt, project scientist for the Mars Exploration Rovers, in a previous interview.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld . Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon’s RSS feed . Her e-mail address is [email protected] .

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