NASA Scrubs Work on 3D Zoom Cameras, Nixing Avatar Director’s Next Mega Pix

NASA has halted work on an advanced zoom 3D camera system under development in San Diego for the SUV-sized Mars Science Laboratory rover—to the disappointment of Avatar filmmaker James Cameron.

In a statement Friday, privately held Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS) of San Diego said there wasn’t enough time remaining to finish testing and integrating the advanced 3D zoom instruments for the scheduled launch of the spacecraft this November. The cameras were supposed to be mounted to the top of a mast on Curiosity, the name NASA has given the newest Mars rover.

“While Curiosity won’t benefit from the 3D motion imaging that the zooms enable, I’m certain that this technology will play an important role in future missions,” Cameron says in a statement from the company. MSSS lists the filmmaker in its credits as “Mastcam Co-Investigator.”

As I reported in 2008, the San Diego company had enlisted Cameron’s help years ago, with the idea of combining its scientific mission with imaging capabilities that could be used to create a stunning movie about Mars. “We proposed this integrated camera system that could do the science imaging that NASA wanted, but also had this zoom capability,” Michael Ravine, MSSS advanced project manager, told me at the time.

Cameron had used a pair of Russian deep-diving research submarines in a similar way to obtain footage from the bottom of the Atlantic for his 1997 film Titanic.

NASA had halted previous development of an HD zoom lens system in 2007, and MSSS delivered two fixed focal length cameras last April. With the two completed and delivered fixed focal length cameras in hand, NASA then decided to fund completion of zoom cameras, with the possibility of swapping out the old cameras for the new ones if they could be assembled and tested in time. The move, which followed the boffo success of Cameron’s 3D film Avatar, included a decision to make stereoscopic 3D zoom camera systems for the spacecraft.

Curiosity on a tilt table at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA

While MSSS finished work on the cameras by the December deadline, subsequent optical analysis of the images showed irregularities due to unexpected and extremely small variations in the fabrication of some pieces. “At the end of the day there just wasn’t enough time to disassemble the units, make the changes, put them back together, and get the instruments to JPL in time,” Ravine said.

In the statement issued by the company, the director renowned for his determination sounded an upbeat note about the setback. He’s quoted as saying, “We’re certainly going to make the most of our cameras that are working so well on Curiosity right now,” but you know, it’s a press release.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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