Descent Camera On Its Way to Mars


With the successful launch of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Mars Polar Lander (MPL) on 3 January 1999, the third of three cameras developed by Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS) for the Mars Surveyor 1998 Project is on its way to Mars. The Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) will acquire images as the MPL spacecraft descends to its landing site at the edge of the martian south polar cap this coming December. It joins two other cameras–together called the Mars Color Imager (MARCI)–already en route to Mars aboard the Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO) launched last month.

Figure 1: Mars Descent Imager During Final Cleaning

Figure 1 shows the MARDI, mounted on the MPL spacecraft, receiving its final cleaning prior to launch.

“During the Mars Polar Lander descent, MARDI will take pictures starting at an altitude of 8 km (5 miles) and continuing all the way down to the surface,” said Dr. Michael Malin, Principal Investigator of the MARDI Science Investigation and President of MSSS. “This will be the first time since the Apollo landings on the Moon that pictures will be taken while descending to the surface of another planet. The MARDI images will show us exactly where the spacecraft landed, and also will provide a link between the images taken from orbit and those taken on the surface after landing.” MARDI will acquire a series of fifteen to twenty black-and-white images, beginning shortly after the lander’s parachute is deployed.

Figure 2: Mars Descent Imager Sequence Test 1/2-scale Image

Click HERE to view a half-scale animated GIF (1.1 MByte GIF)

Figure 2 is a single image taken by MARDI during a spacecraft test. The “alien” in the picture is an inflatable doll. An animation of the entire sequence of descent images acquired during the test (1.1 MBytes in size) can seen at

MARCI will provide global coverage of Mars at moderate and low resolution at ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared wavelengths. MARCI was powered up for its first in-flight check-out on 23 December 1998, and functioned nominally.

MARDI and MARCI incorporate an innovative electronics design that enables high-quality scientific data acquisition in a very compact package–each unit weighs about one-half kilogram (one pound), less than one-tenth the weight of any previous orbiter or lander camera sent to Mars. The design is also extremely conservative of power, using only three watts during data acquisition.

The MARDI and MARCI instruments were developed by MSSS under a $3.5 million contract from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, CA. MSSS is also providing two instruments based on the MARDI/MARCI architecture for the Mars Surveyor 2001 mission: a descent imager for the MS ’01 lander and a visible imaging subsystem for Arizona State University’s Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) for the MS ’01 orbiter. MSSS developed and operates the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) on Mars Global Surveyor (MGS), currently in orbit around Mars. The MOC has returned spectacular high resolution images of Mars over the past year, including images of the MPL landing site near the south pole, that can be seen at

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