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Xilinx of Mars: NASA’s Curiosity rover shoots Martian eclipse using Smarter Vision.

Xilinx Employee
Xilinx Employee
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On August 29, NASA announced that the Curiosity Mars rover shot the sharpest-ever images of a solar eclipse when the Martian moon Phobos passed overhead. The rover shot the image with its right telephoto Mastcam (Mast Camera), however It doesn’t really matter which of four Curiosity imagers (the Mastcam stereo pair, MARDI, or MAHLI) shot the eclipse (composite triptych image below) because all of the imagers talk to separate image pipelines implemented with Virtex-II FPGAs inside of four individual, identical DEA (Digital Electronics Assemblies) “slices” housed together in a temperature-controlled enclosure nestled deep inside of the rover.



Annual Eclipse of the Sun as seen by Curiosity.jpg


Annular eclipse of the Sun by Phobos, as seen by Curiosity.

Photo courtesy of NASA


All interface, compression, and timing functions are implemented as logic peripherals of a Microblaze soft-processor core in the Virtex-II FPGA. The DEA’s image-processing pipeline includes 11-to-8-bit companding of input pixels, horizontal sub-framing, and lossless predictive or lossy compression. The latter also requires the Bayer pattern raw image to be interpolated and reordered into luminance/chrominance block format. The DEA’s image-processing pipelines run in real time, writing the processed data stream directly into DEA memory.


Although they use different optics, all four main images on the Curiosity rover use the same KAI-2020CM CCD imager, originally supplied by Kodak. Each of the four CCD sensors has an output resolution of 1600x1200 pixels, although the resolution is cropped to 1200x1200 pixels for the two MASTCAM imagers. All four imagers incorporate Bayer filters, which requires Bayer interpolation supplied by the appropriate DEA slice.


Why were seemingly archaic technology such as Virtex-II FPGAs and 2Mpixel CCD imaging sensors used? Because the system was defined and frozen nearly 10 years ago, way back in 2004. Vision capabilities have advanced significantly in the ensuing decade. Even so, this decade-old imaging technology gives the Curiosity rover Smarter Vision: its ability to see and navigate Mars and to send back stunning images of an alien landscape that’s 35 million miles away (on a good day).


For more information about early All Programmable devices on Mars, see “FPGAs on Mars,” first published in Xcell Journal back in 2004 and this Xcell Journal article from 2010: “Mars Exploration Rovers Celebrate 6 years on the Red Planet.”

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