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A colour camera for the Red Planet

12 May 2014

PanCam filter wheel

Europe's ExoMars rover, scheduled to land on Mars in 2018, will feature a main camera system known as PanCam, which will contain two wide-angle cameras and one narrow-angle (telephoto) camera. The PanCam project is led by Prof Andrew Coates at UCL's Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

As is common with scientific cameras, particularly those used in space missions, the wide-angle cameras will not directly take colour pictures, like consumer digital cameras do. The process by which these work is quite complicated and leads to fairly imprecise colour reproduction - which can be a problem if the photo needs to be scientifically accurate.

Instead, the pair of wide-angle cameras in the PanCam package will take high-resolution greyscale images through a series of coloured filters. This method allows much more sophisticated and accurate sampling of colours, which scientists will be able to use to determine the chemistry of the rocks and dust around the rover.

For easy switching of the filters, these will be held in wheels, pictured here with clear glass in place of the coloured filters, that can quickly rotate the right filter into position in front of the cameras' detectors.

PanCam's high-resolution narrow-angle camera will use a different strategy, involving fixed filters but a moving camera, to obtain colour photos.

PanCam filter wheel

Prof Coates' work on PanCam follows on from his collaboration with planetary scientist Colin Pillinger, who sadly died last week. Prof Pillinger was the leader of the Beagle 2 probe, which malfunctioned during its landing sequence in 2003. The filter wheels for PanCam are among the components in ExoMars which have a direct heritage from Beagle 2.

PanCam filter wheel

Reacting to his former colleague's death, Prof Coates said:

"I was shocked and saddened to hear the news about Colin Pillinger. It was a great experience to work with Colin on Beagle 2. Beagle 2's legacy is the miniaturised technology, some of which is being provided for the ExoMars 2018 rover, and is still being proposed for other missions. One example is our ExoMars PanCam instrument for the 2018 rover, which includes some heritage from our Beagle 2 Stereo Camera System.

Colin was a visionary and an inspirational leader, and had a wonderfully involving interaction with the media as well. His work with the Moon and meteorites is also legendary. He really raised our hopes of actually going to Mars in 2003 to look for past or present life - and we hope to follow up this zeal with the ExoMars rover arrival in 2019."

Photo credit: UCL MSSL

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