NASA Taps Teledyne CCD Image Sensors to Search for Past Life on Mars

August 01, 2020 by Antonio Anzaldua Jr.

Teledyne e2v’s CCD image sensor is headed to Mars on NASA's Perseverance Rover. Its mission? To investigate rock samples on the red planet for past signs of life.

Teledyne e2v’s charge-coupled device (CCD) image sensor is headed to Mars. The CCD42-10 image sensors were onboarded on NASA’s Mars rover, Perseverance, which is headed to Mars to examine geological materials and search for signs of past microbial life on the red planet. The journey will take approximately seven months. 


Perseverance will be used to search for signs of past microbial life on the red planet.

Perseverance will be used to search for signs of past microbial life on the red planet. Image used courtesy of NASA


In the past, Teledyne's components have been utilized in deepwater oil exploration, oceanographic research, environmental monitoring, and medical imaging. NASA chose Teledyne's CCD image sensors for this mission because of the company's background in instrumentation, digital imaging, aerospace electronics, and defense applications. 


NASA's History With CCD Image Sensors

From the time the first CCD image sensors were introduced until the 1990s, NASA has gained interest in developing the technology further by working on small image sensors that could handle extreme space conditions.

CCD sensors, particularly Teledyne's devices, have traveled past Earth’s exosphere on multiple occasions. In 2012, NASA’s Curiosity Rover was equipped with Teledyne's CCD image sensors as it moved across the rocky terrain of Mars. The image sensors were mounted on a hazard avoidance and navigational camera.

Scientists and engineers were able to recreate a panoramic 3D imagery of the rough terrain to spot potential obstacles for the rover. This also led NASA to create an interactive web application for anyone to see through the lens of a rover.


Teledyne’s CCD Image Sensor on the Mars Mission

On this recent mission to Mars, NASA’s Perseverance rover will investigate astrobiological-relevant environments and geological processes to help prove the possibility of past life on Mars.

The rover will search for past microbial life by attempting to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, improving landing techniques, and identifying other environmental conditions that could affect future astronauts living and working on Mars.

Teledyne’s CCD42-10 is integrated on two different camera systems, the SuperCam and SHERLOC. 

SuperCam will use the CCD image sensor to examine rock and soil compounds and collect photos. These photos will help scientists assess whether the samples have been altered or formed due to water. The camera will be able to identify targets smaller than a pencil point over a distance of 20 feet. 

SHERLOC will have the CCD sensor mounted on the rover’s robotic arm, which will function day and night alongside an ultraviolet laser light to spot organic chemicals.



CCD42-10. Image used courtesy of Teledyne Imaging 


The CCD42-10 has a small footprint (27.6 mm x 6.9 mm), 2048 by 512-pixel format, and a low-noise amplifier. The output amplifier is designed to give excellent noise levels at low pixel rates with 100 times reduction in dark current with minimum reduction in full-well capacity.

These features make it useful for intense applications such as spectroscopy. It allows the camera to measure the light that is emitted, absorbed, or scattered by materials to study, identify, and quantify the samples. 


How Far Can CCD Sensors Take Us?

CCD sensors are comparable to complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) sensors in image quality, reliability, and power consumption.

CMOS sensors provide lower power consumption and offer higher levels of integration, which reduces the complexity of the circuit designer’s task. CMOS sensors use up to 100 times less power than CCD image sensors and are also less costly. 

However, CCD sensors continue to play a key role wherever higher image quality and greater light sensitivity are required. Teledyne's e2v president of space and quantum departments Dr. Miles Adcock says the company's CCD image sensors are unmatched: “Teledyne’s space imaging heritage is unsurpassed, especially with the number of high TRL devices and the thousands of years of proven space flight.”

For this Mars mission, NASA researchers have all of the electricity needed to operate the CCD image sensors. Everything else on the Perseverance is provided by a power system called a multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator (MMRTG), developed by Teledyne Energy Systems.



Multi-mission radioisotope thermoelectric generator. Image used courtesy of Teledyne Energy Systems


The system is powered by a nuclear battery that uses the heat from the natural radioactive decay of plutonium-238 to generate about 110 watts of electricity once the rover goes mobile.

Teledyne's e2v CCD image sensor should help NASA obtain concrete evidence of past life on Mars. By March 2021, we will know how the Mars rover is handling the new mission.


Featured image (modified) used courtesy of Teledyne e2v and Teledyne Energy Systems