Curious images

If you’re following the mission of Curiosity closely you’ll know it’s covered in more cameras than a Japanese tourist walking around Grasmere. The rover has 17 different cameras, all of which do different jobs. Almost every day now new images from these cameras are being released, sometimes only a matter of hours after they were taken on Mars, which is fantastic. But while many of these images are sharp, and crisp, and fill your monitor with magnificent Mars goodness, bringing Gale crater and Mt Sharp to life in beautiful, realistic colour, some of these images look, to be brutally honest, bloody rubbish. They’re clearly high resolution pictures, but they’re criss-crossed with gazillions of lines, and look like highly-magnifed newspaper photographs, made up of countless tiny squares. Images like this…

Click on that and you’ll see what I mean. Going to the MSL Raw images site, or checking on the arrival of new images by using one of the brilliant image update pages created by members of the amateur community, and seeing these black and white monstrosities, is very disappointing and very, very frustrating for people who want to follow the mission and walk alongside the rover as it sets out on its journey into the heart of Gale crater, especially after all of these years of enjoying “hot off the press” images sent back from Spirit and Opportunity which haven’t ever looked anything like that.

Why do they look like that? Well, it’s a combination of the way the images are physically and digitally taken by the rover’s cameras, the way they’re processed and the way they’re released and displayed. It would be possible, I gather, for the images to be released “clean”, if they were processed a bit differently, but that’s not happening.

Some people are suggesting that, having seen how voraciously the amateur imaging community fell upon the raw images released by the MER team and created gorgeous images with them, this is a deliberate attempt by the MSL team to prevent people not on the mission doing the same thing, and even though I don’t think that’s the case I suppose there’s a logic to that. The scientists have invested a lot of time and money in the rover and its mission, and are desperate for it to be a huge scientific success, so it must be galling for them sometimes to see images pop up online before they’ve even had a chance to work on them and pull science out of them. But I am sure it’s not a cynical thing, I think it’s just the result of things being done differently *by* MSL and by the team. You never know, with such huge public interest in, and support for, Curiosity’s mission around the world, maybe someone will decide that these clearly beautiful images should be released in such a way as to let everyone enjoy them. I hope so.

( For a very detailed explanation of exactly WHY these images look this way, head on over to Emily Lakdawalla’s always-excellent Planetary Society blog where she’s written a detailed post all about it. )

Bsides, if it *is* an attempt to stop people pulling detail out of them and making beautiful images out of them, it’s already a big failure, because, inevitably, there are people out there who know image processing backwards and inside out, who live, eat and breathe this stuff, and can do things with Photoshop, ImageJ and their computers that leave me shaking my head in wonder.

I like to potter about with these images, as you know, and manage to create some fairly decent stuff now and again which some people enjoy looking at. But I am an absolute beginner, just a really keen amateur, with an old computer, cheap software, and (just!) enough free timeto let me play about with pictures from Mars. But there are others, like UMSF’s James Canvin and Damien Bouic, who are *magicians*, who take these images and turn them into something… wonderful. Whenever I post one of my images on UMSF I feel like the shabbily dressed kid who has wandered accidentally into the school science club at lunchtime! 🙂 But seriously, their images are works of brilliance. They’ve recently been stitching together dozens of images sent back by Curiosity to create colour panoramas of the landscape, showing the crater wall and Mt Sharp in just breathtaking detail. Their images have now been widely seen across the internet, but if you haven’t seen them yet, or if you just want to drool over them again, well, here you go…

James Canvin’s panorama

Damien Bouic’s panorama

Soooo, if they can do that with “clean” images, no surprise then that they can take these new stripey images and make them look great too.

I had a go, with very limited success… Here are a few “Before and After” views…

Hmmm. They’re not bad, a little clearer, but with the right software, hardware, and a LOT of image processing skill (which I obviously don’t have! Haha!) and talent you can actually turn those blurry, line-covered horrors into beautiful colour pictures. Here’s what Damian has been able to achieve

Anyway, as I said, hopefully someone somewhere will decide that these images deserve to be seen by everyone – by kids browsing in school computer rooms, by people looking at the MSL website on computers in libraries, by everyone interested in the mission – and not just by a select few image processing wizards with kick ass computers and software. I’m sure that will happen. In the meantime, we can all enjoy new images from Mars, from MARS, every day, and that’s an amazing thing! 🙂




3 thoughts on “Curious images

  1. Bev says:

    Oh. And here I was thinking that effect was due to Curiosity taking the shot through the flyscreen… 😉

  2. I totally agree.

    It’s very disappointing, not to mention confusing, to find hardly any great (or even half decent) photos at the MSL website, and having to wade through the confusing and cluttered structure while attempting (and failing) to find them.

    Compared to the MER sites, where the smallest thumbnails have always been exciting to explore, this a public relations disaster of the first order, and needs to be rectified quickly. When even Mars nuts like myself and others lose inspiration, give up, and head elsewhere for information, one really has to wonder how the general public reacts.

    Scientists should never be allowed to be in charge of communications. Science needs public and political support. That support ultimately comes from shared interests, dreams and goals.

    Getting that across to other people requires intuition how to reach other people’s hearts and minds, skill, and a passion to tell a story – the very capabilities you so clearly show in your work here and elsewhere.

    Thank you for this. Your efforts are important, now even more so.

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