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The NASA rover Perseverance is sending pictures from Mars of a quality never seen before. DW spoke to Jay Kumler, North America chief of the German company Jenoptik, which developed lenses for the vehicle.
DW: You probably saw the first pictures from Mars made by NASA's Perseverance rover earlier than the rest of us. What went through your mind, and how many bottles of champagne did you drink?
Jay Kumler: Actually, we saw the HazCam (Hazard Avoidance Camera) pictures at the same time as the general public. It was shared so quickly after the landing that everyone was seeing it for the first time — the scientists, the vendors, the public. That was a really exciting moment. It was a combination of relief, pride and excitement, because we know what that means for the rover for years to come now that the engineering cameras are working properly.
Were the images exactly like you expected them to be?
We are poring over the images that come from right, left, front and back, navigational cameras and hazard cameras. As far as we can tell, everything is in perfect working order.
Was there any image or video that struck you particularly, that was special?
The first one is always the most amazing because of what that represents. It means that the rover is safe and on solid ground. That was fantastic. But the first images still had the lens caps on them to protect the lenses from the dust of the landing. Getting the caps off on the second day and seeing the first shot of the horizon with a perfectly clear image was probably my most memorable shot.
Where are the Jenoptik lenses located on the rover?
Jenoptik was proud to be part of the team for the engineering cameras. They are helping the rover navigate and also helping it take samples of the surface. That's as opposed to the science cameras. We designed and built four hazard cameras located at the same place they would be on your own automobile — low and in the front and in the back of the rover. That's to make sure that it is not going to run into any kind of obstacles. The rover operates autonomously for 24 hours until it gets its next set of commands. These systems on the rover rely on the hazard cameras.
The navigational cameras are higher up on the mast. There are four of those as well. They are used to look out across the horizon to help the rover do the navigation. The really special camera is the CacheCam, which is in the belly of the rover. Its single purpose is to look inside the tubes where the samples of the Martian soil are being collected. The purpose of the CacheCam is to make sure that the samples were collected properly. It would be a shame if the tubes were finally returned to the United States and for some reason there was no material inside them. The CacheCam is particularly challenging because it has to be the cleanest camera. If there's any particles on the CacheCam lenses that could contaminate the samples that are being taken from Mars, it would be a disaster for science. I've heard different NASA colleagues say that the CacheCam is some of the cleanest equipment that NASA has ever built.
Is this the first time Jenoptik has been on Mars?
This is definitely the first time Jenoptik has been on Mars. We've delivered camera lenses for a number of other programs and have a pretty long relationship with NASA going way back to the Hubble Space Telescope. We contributed to the Hubble telescope while our original company was called Coastal Optical Systems. It operated before it was acquired by Jenoptik in 2002.
When you take pictures, for example, on a beach, you have to protect the cameras from sand. How did you protect the lenses on the Mars Rover, knowing how harsh weather conditions there can be?
There was a protective cap and protective shield on the lenses that protected them from the worst. The CacheCam itself looks directly into the tubes; it has nothing between it and them. So it has to be absolutely clean. But coatings have advanced, and protective windows keep the cameras as safe as possible.
The landing on Mars is very dangerous, also because of sand storms. How did you protect the lenses at that stage?
There were very bulky caps; they are quite secure. I wasn't involved in the actual cap design. But suffice it to say that the caps were capable of withstanding the landing conditions. We believe that the hazard cameras and the navigational cameras will also be safe for the lifetime of the program, even in the conditions that you mentioned.
Are the Jenoptik lenses used anywhere on Earth or is it just for space?
They are specifically designed for Mars and this mission. There's a good possibility that if there are missions in the future, these particular cameras could be used over and over again on future missions, because their use has been de-risked with this one; it's safer to use technology that is already proven in space. So for future rover missions or other missions, NASA will certainly have a preference for using existing technology. These HazCams and NavCams were a significant step forward in performance compared to the previous rovers, for example. The overall system has a much higher performance, higher resolution, more pixels, better color, everything else like that. So it was a big jump forward from the last rover camera systems and can be used in the future, but these are not used on Earth.
What is special about the lenses? What are they are made of?
Each one of these cameras' lenses are generally small enough to fit into the palm of your hand. They are made of a variety of different types of glass in order to get the color correction and the performance that you need. Then the entire system has to survive the entire range of temperatures on Mars, which, in addition to the cleaning aspect, is probably the most difficult problem.
The images that we've seen are very sharply focused. Were you surprised by that? Is it because the cameras are good or because the lenses are good? Or is it a combination of both?
We weren't surprised because here in Jupiter, Florida, in our clean rooms we had to build special test equipment that could take the lenses down to Martian temperatures. We actually had to qualify to temperatures at the poles of Mars, really extremely cold temperatures. And we demonstrated in our lab that not just the lenses would survive, but that the lenses would actually image correctly over this 100 C (180 F) temperature range.
You've developed three different types of lenses for the Mars mission. Which type are you especially proud of?
The navigational cameras will get to show off the most, let's say it that way. NASA is using navigational cameras to stitch together panoramas that are very spectacular because of the resolution of the pictures. It's a hard choice but I would pick the navigational cameras, because the images I've seen have really been spectacular.
Jay Kumler is currently serving as president of Jenoptik Optical Systems in North America. Kumler co-founded Coastal Optical Systems, which was acquired by Jenoptik in 2002. Coastal Optical Systems was involved in the servicing missions of the Hubble Space Telescope.