OCAMS – The Eyes of OSIRIS-REx

Guest Blogger: Bashar Rizk – OCAMS Instrument Scientist

The OSIRIS-REx mission has the unique challenge of sending a spacecraft to the carbonaceous near-Earth asteroid Bennu, surveying the entire asteroid surface, reconnoitering potential sampling sites, then returning a sample to Earth. OSIRIS-REx must achieve all of these steps using only the observational assets he brings along.

One of our most important assets is a trio of cameras called the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite, or OCAMS, under construction at the University of Arizona. The design of OCAMS allows us to image Bennu over 9 orders-of-magnitude in distance, from an initial distance of 1-million kilometers (over 620,000 miles) down to 2 meters (6.5 feet). The camera suite is similar to a lookout nestled in the crow’s-nest of a tall ship. This scout must observe Bennu as we approach, survey, and recon the asteroid, and tell the ship’s navigator where to go.

The OCAMS medium-resolution Mapping Camera, or MapCam, represents the sharp eyes of our scout. The OCAMS cameras share many similarities to human eyes. Only the central field of view of your eye – called the foveal region – is in focus. It is this portion of your vision that you use the most, for viewing objects both near and far, recognizing human faces, and reading. It is also the only part of your eye that senses color. The one arc-minute resolution of your foveal region is the same resolution possessed by MapCam (one arc minute is roughly the angle subtended by a stoplight seen from a mile away).

Foveal and Peripheral Vision:  the image falling on the fovea comes from only 4-8 degrees of the 205-degree visual field

Foveal and Peripheral Vision: the image falling on the fovea comes from only 4-8 degrees of the 205-degree visual field

MapCam will map the entire surface of Bennu from a safe and convenient standoff distance of 5 kilometers (3 miles), watching Bennu spin through a whole asteroid day every 4.3 hours. MapCam has a moderate field of view of 4°, approximately the angular width of 3 fingers held at arm’s length and a resolution of less than 1 arc minute. It has a filter wheel that allows it to image in 4 different colors: blue, green, red and infrared, similar to your foveal region (except for the infrared). It can also rotate a glass plate into its optical train to allow it to refocus light from the relatively short range of 30 meters (100 feet) – our scout needs put on his reading glasses to consult his map from time to time.

The MapCam is the sharp eye of OSIRIS-REx

The MapCam is the sharp eye of OSIRIS-REx

The PolyCam is the spyglass our lookout uses to investigate faraway objects in detail – magnifying the sharpness of his natural vision by a factor of 5. The PolyCam is the largest camera of the OCAMS suite. It is a 20.3-centimeter (8-inch) wide telescope with a 63.5-centimeter (25-inch) focal length. It has a resolution of about one-sixth of an arc minute. Its field of view is just less than 1°, about the width of your pinky finger held at arm’s length. It is used for several critical tasks: to acquire the asteroid while it is still a point of light against the background stars, to identify and exclude dangerous areas on the asteroid’s surface by spotting and mapping large boulders and rocks, and to characterize a dozen prospective sample sites in detail. PolyCam has a focus mechanism that converts this telescope into a microscope – allowing our scout to scrutinize the tiniest rocks and pebbles on the asteroid to ensure that they are small enough to fit into the sample head.  It is this dual nature – telescope turned microscope – that gives the PolyCam its name.

PolyCam is our spyglass used to spot Bennu from hundreds of thousands of miles and investigate fine-scale surface features

PolyCam is our spyglass used to spot Bennu from hundreds of thousands of miles and investigate fine-scale surface features

The third member of camera suite is our Sampling Camera or SamCam. SamCam represents our Scouts’ peripheral vision. Possessing a resolution of almost 4 arc minutes and a wide field of view of 21°, SamCam is designed to document sample acquisition. Just as your peripheral vision routinely captures the sudden movements that, in nature, may so often demand a fight-or-flight response, SamCam’s field of view captures the spurt of gas and regolith mobilizing out from beneath the sampler head at the moment of sample capture. Your vision relies on a steady update of the scene that is almost video-like in nature, similar to the rapid succession of images (approximately 3 every 5 seconds) that the SamCam will capture during sample acquisition. This fight-or-flight analogy is not to say that the surface of the asteroid is ready to attack us. However, if it does, SamCam’s filter wheel sports three identical filters ready to be rotated into its optical train in case one or more of them get covered by the dust mobilized during the sampling event. These filters are the safety goggles for our scout – allowing him to continue to serve the mission in the event that we need to attempt a second sample collection.

SamCam is the peripheral vision of OSIRIS-REx and is well equipped with safety goggles

SamCam is the peripheral vision of OSIRIS-REx and is well equipped with safety goggles

SamCam has another very important function. Using its own reading glasses, it observes the bottom of the sampler head to verify sampling success. These observations also ensure that no rocks large enough to prevent the head being inserted into the Sample Return Capsule cling to the surface.

The three OCAMS Cameras differ from each other, but belong to the same family.  They use identical detector assemblies to record the images they acquire (the same retinas). They each possess mechanisms actuated by identical motors (the same muscles). They share the same unified electronics controller (the same brain). As a group, these three visual siblings greatly increase the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft’s ability to successfully navigate, explore and sample asteroid Bennu.

The Camara Control Module is the brain of OCAMS

The Camara Control Module is the brain of OCAMS


  1. Very good blogs, thanks for this!

  2. John Ivens · · Reply

    Three cameras sharing one “retina” reminds me of the Stygian witches, who had one eye that they had to share between them. A lovely metaphor, I know.. 🙂

  3. […] asteroid’s surface at a time, and it does not need to focus in the same way the human eye or a camera does. OTES’s telescope collects all of the infrared energy emitted by whatever is in its field of […]

  4. […] another year around the Sun we begin the Approach Phase. During this phase we use the PolyCam to search the region around Bennu for any potential hazards such as natural satellites or dust […]

  5. […] running tests – 4 of 5 instrument Engineering Models successfully integrated into the STLs (OCAMS, OVIRS, OTES, and REXIS) – Robust thermal design that’s able to handle an extremely wide […]

  6. […] have also discussed the design and construction of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft and its instruments (OCAMS, OLA, OVIRS, OTES, and REXIS). This column introduces another important topic. After launch, just […]

  7. […] give an exact measure. One novel way to estimate the total spring compression is to use the very high-resolution images taken during the sampling attempt, and use the size of the sampling head in the images to determine how far away it was from the […]

  8. […] most exciting event this week, at least for me, was the installation of OCAMS. OCAMS completed environmental testing and calibrations this month and were shipped out to Lockheed […]

  9. […] also have to verify that SamCam can image TAGSAM during and after sampling. In order to get the right lighting conditions, we […]

  10. […] instruments and ran them through some basic functional check outs. I am happy to report that OCAMS, OVIRS, OTES, OLA, and REXIS all completed post-launch aliveness checkouts with no major issues. […]

  11. […] Pour plus de détails concernant cet instrument, voir l’article (en anglais) du blog de Dante Lauretta, le responsable scientifique de la mission :  OCAMS – The eyes of OSIRIS-REx […]

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