Sunday, March 12, 2006

How Far We Have Come

Watching the History Channel today, I was struck by the images taken of Mars in 1969 by the Mariner spacecraft. It got me to wondering--how did they get those images from Mars back to Earth? Obviously, they didn't send film back from Mars! So, back in 1969, NASA was using a primitive, but cutting-edge form of filmless photography.

A bit of research uncovered a press release from July 25, 1969, describing the photography system used by the orbiting spacecraft:

"An improved vidicon tube will store and transmit images. Its photosensitive surface receives 704 lines, with 945 dots (called pixels) per line--665,280 dots for each exposure. An electronic beam scans these for a tape recording system that will relay them to Earth receiving stations in the NASA-JPL tracking network. The quality of the pictures should be upgraded by the 30-fold increase in pixel-pickup since 1965."

If you stop to think about it, the power in the hands of the average point and shoot digital camera user is incredible. The Mariner series of spacecraft cost $554 million dollars to create, launch, and support. The cameras had a resolution of 945 x 704 (0.66 megapixels). Compare that with today's Canon Powershot A620, a typical consumer point and shoot camera with a resolution of 3072 x 2304 (7.1 megapixels) and $370 price tag. Not only has technology enabled the consumer to have better equipment than the best that government/military could produce just a mere 37 years ago, but the consumer gear is smaller, far less expensive, and far more user friendly.

Think about all the things that are "cutting edge" today for the government, from computers to communications systems. The Internet is a descendent of the original ARPANET, for example. What will we be seeing 35 years from now, when those secret, cutting edge technologies make their way into consumer products?

We have come very far; imagine how far we have yet to go.