WASHINGTON – The high-resolution space gadget used to capture images of Mars is similar to the digital cameras tourists use daily around the National Mall.
The main difference is the megapixel count. A consumer-grade digital camera averages 10 megapixels. But NASA's HiRISE camera has a one gigapixel resolution,which is about 1,000 megapixels.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum featured images taken by HiRISE,also known as “The People's Camera,” Friday as part of the 2010 Mars Day event.
Museum scientist and HiRISE mission science team member Patrick Russell described the advanced device in the simplest terms.
“It's similar to a digital camera except instead of a little lens it has a half-meter telescope,” Russell said. “That kind of resolution… it's incredible.”
HiRISE was launched into orbit in August 2005 and captured its first high-quality image of Mars in December 2006. Since then,it has produced more than 16,000 images. Each image reveals about a foot of Mars' surface. HiRISE completes 12 orbits around Mars per day and captures two images per orbit.
“What really grips me is that you can imagine yourself standing there. There are things there that you see from orbit that are about as big as you are,” Russell said. “We see it from the Rovers,but from orbit it's just a breathtaking new view.”
Russell joined the Smithsonian staff a year ago but has researched the color calibration of the HiRISE images since he was a post-doctoral student at Switzerland's University of Bern in 2005. He said he enjoys working at the museum because he is able to share his passion and experience with others every day.
“The museum aspect is pretty cool. You get to actually talk about what you are doing to real people and,hopefully,see them get excited,” Russell said.
Russell said the popularity of the HiRISE camera and its images is based on the public's ability to request and view certain images through the HiRISE website.
Science team members evaluate photo requests and rank them. The more compelling a reason – such as checking for signs that water might have been present in a particular location – for taking the photo the higher priority rank it receives.
After photos are captured,it takes a month to process and publish them on the website. Team members then notify those who have requested targets.
The HiRISE camera was not the only favorite at the annual event. Many visitors tested their technological skills while maneuvering robotic arms and miniature space rovers on the main floor of the museum.
Alida Matthews,a teacher of 3 year olds at the Bridges Academy in Washington,said her students were eager to play with the robots. She said her students had been studying the Solar System for several weeks,and the Mars Day events were an appropriate end to a fun topic.