Why The Curiosity Rover Only Has A Two-Megapixel Camera



Why does the Curiosity rover only have a 2MP camera, along with just 8GB flash storage? Is it some special NASA trick that pulls more info from low-res sensors? Is it something to do with the kind of space radiation that turned Reed Richards and team into the Fantastic Four? Nope – it turns out that the reason that the Mars Rover is using 8-year-old camera technology is because the camera design was specced eight years ago, way back in the swirling mists of 2004.

Not that the data pipe between here and Mars could handle much more data than a 2MP camera can produce, anyway. The UHF radio that beams back photos and other data talks to two spaceships in Mars orbit and can manage to beam back just 250 megabits per day to Earth.

The camera was designed by a team headed by Mike Ravine, at Malin Space Science Systems, and there were actually four of them. This also led to design compromises, as the mission’s cameras had different purposes but shared the same basic architecture. For instance, to capture the rover’s descent, the team wanted high-speed video. Back in 2004, this meant 2MP sensors, as 4MP sensors ran at half the speed.

The final reason for using the Kodak KAI-2020 sensor was that the team had used them before, and found them easy to work with. When your camera is – on average – 225 million kilometers away, then reliability and familiarity count for a lot more than pixel counts. Especially as Curiosity is perfectly capable of stitching together panoramas.

Source: DP Review

  • Lars Pallesen

    Really, NASA? Even by 2004 consumer standards 2MP resolution was low.


  • Andy Murdock

    JPL managed to land a robot on mars with a retro rocket sky crane. I think I’ll defer to them as to which equipment to load on to the rover. What do I know? Some people think they know better, well they don’t.

  • Christian Montiel

    I mean, why does the NASA have to bothering on put a fancy 8 MP Camera if the only thing to take photos is land, with rocks… even these days on earth people have fancy iphone cameras and they decreased the quality with shitty instagram filters… so why bother invest on a high DSRL camera, besides it is more easy to transfer a 2mb photo instead of a 50mb photo over the universe… human failing, NASA just being razonable… Just Saying.

  • Aaron

    I have a 3.2 megapixel Minolta digital camera that I purchased in 2000. It still to the day takes EXCELLENT pictures. The LCD sucks by today’s standards, it only uses Compact Flash cards (max. size of 1GB!), its auto focus takes a long time, and its low light sensitivity is bested by almost every camera today, but it’s still a great camera. Why? Its relatively large sensor, low noise, and ability to take RAW photos.

    Anyone who judges a digital camera by the number of megapixels it has just fell into the marketing hype.

  • siddharthbandhu

    What the hell were the older rovers using then?

  • James Locker

    On the 1976 Viking Lander it was a A vidicon tube is a video camera tube design in which the target material is a photoconductor. The Vidicon was developed in the 1950s at RCA. I had a JVC compact tube camera for my over the shoulder VCR by canon back in 1979, it weighed 15 pounds It has come a long way!

    I worked for Kodak in 2006 newest consumer image sensors were only 6mp, but remember these are hardened not mass produced image sensors so they have less megapixels but the image sensor is a 1000x better.

    I think people forget that Kodak made all the digital imaging sensors and digital imaging technology for both the Nikon and Canon DSLR back in the very beginning. This is why their patents are still valuable and being sold to Apple and others.

    And what was the first Apple’s first Digital camera a 640 x 480 pixel resolution was created with the help of Kodak in 1994 :)