Malin Space Science Systems Corporate History

MSSS was incorporated in 1990 to design, build, and operate space camera systems for government and commercial aerospace customers. The small, ~30-person company is located in San Diego, California, U.S.A.

The initial focus of MSSS was on the development of the ground data system for—and operation of—the Mars Observer Camera (MOC) aboard NASA’s Mars Observer. After the spacecraft was lost in August 1993, MSSS participated in NASA-sponsored studies aimed at recovering from the loss and was selected to build the flight spare MOC for NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor (MGS).

MGS was launched in 1996 and the MOC was operated by MSSS for 10 years—from calibration and Mars meteorological imaging during the interplanetary cruise phase, through the spacecraft orbit insertion aerobraking period, the MGS primary mission, and multiple extended missions.

At the same time that MSSS started work on the MGS MOC in the mid-1990s, the company was developing a very small, modular camera system for future spacecraft flight opportunities. The work culminated with the selection of MSSS to provide cameras for both the Mars Surveyor 1998 orbiter and lander, later named Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander. Both of these NASA spacecraft were lost upon arrival at Mars in 1999.

As the Mars Surveyor 1998 cameras were being built, MSSS was selected in 1997 by Arizona State University to provide the Visible Imaging Subsystem (VIS) of the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) instrument aboard the Mars Odyssey orbiter, and by the Caltech/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to provide a descent camera for the Mars Surveyor 2001 lander. The 2001 lander was cancelled after the loss of Mars Polar Lander.

The THEMIS VIS camera, operated by Arizona State University, is still acquiring data and has been doing so from Mars orbit since 2002. The 2001 descent camera flew on the Phoenix Mars Scout mission launched in 2007 but was not permitted by NASA to acquire data during the landing in May 2008, owing to concerns on the spacecraft side of the interface.

In 2003, MSSS developed and delivered a VGA format color video camera to fit within the extremely constrained mass, volume, power, and budget requirements of The Planetary Society's Cosmos-1 solar sail mission. This mission suffered a launch vehicle failure and never reached orbit.

MSSS developed the Mars Color Imager (MARCI) and Context Camera (CTX) for NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched in 2005. MSSS operates these instruments daily; they have been orbiting Mars since March 2006 and MSSS posts on its web site each week a video of the latest Martian weather observed by MARCI.

In 2004, MSSS was selected to provide three camera systems (four total cameras) for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover and three cameras for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission. The LRO Cameras (LROC) were delivered to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 2008. The LRO was launched and began acquiring data from orbit around the Moon in 2009. The LROC system is operated by investigators at Arizona State University.

In 2006, MSSS developed the Engineering and Public Outreach Camera (EPOC) for the LRO mission. This camera was designed with two 3-Megapixel color CMOS imagers and two sets of optics to separately capture high-definition video of the LRO solar array and high-gain antenna deployments and gimbaling, with views of the Moon and Earth in the background. The LRO Project ultimately elected not to fly EPOC, due to schedule constraints with spacecraft accommodations, but in 2009 a major aerospace firm purchased this camera (renamed Camera Monitoring Assembly (CMA)) for use on a classified Earth-orbiting spacecraft.

The first two of four MSL cameras, the Mars Descent Imager (MARDI) and the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) were delivered to JPL in 2008. The second pair of cameras, fixed-focal length Mast Cameras (Mastcams) with a 34 mm and 100 mm focal length, were delivered in March 2010. At the same time, MSSS began work on a second pair of Mastcams, identical cameras with a zoom lens, for delivery to JPL in late 2010. When that delivery occurs, a decision will be made by NASA whether to fly the fixed-focal length Mastcams or the zoom lens pair. The MSL rover will launch in late 2011 and land on Mars in August or September 2012.

In addition to the zoom lens Mastcam effort, MSSS is currently completing Junocam, a color camera system for education and public outreach use onboard Juno, a NASA spacecraft launching toward Jupiter in August 2011. Juno will reach the giant planet in 2016. 

MSSS is currently developing the ECAM modular, off-the-shelf space camera platform for spacecraft engineering, space surveillance and situational awareness applications for NASA, intelligence/defense, and commercial aerospace customers.This platform builds on flight heritage designs from the CMA, MSL cameras, and the LROC flight programs.

MSSS’s current projects include:

  • Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO)

    • Mars Color Imager (MARCI) and Context Camera (CTX)

These investigations, under contract to the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory (which manages the MRO Project for NASA), supported development of the MARCI and CTX for launch aboard the 2005 orbiter and now are supporting mission operations at MSSS. Changes to the MARCI based on lessons learned from the 1998 MARCI instrument and dictated by the different orbit and mission parameters include incorporation of a 180° field of view, new ultraviolet and visible filters, and an interface adaptor to match the new spacecraft’s data bus. CTX was a new camera design; it acquires mono- and stereoscopic grayscale images at nearly MGS MOC resolution (6 m/pixel from 300 km altitude) over a much larger field-of-view (30 km). MSSS’s Michael Malin is the Principal Investigator for the MARCI and the Team Leader for the CTX. Weather reports derived from daily MARCI global image maps are released every week on the MSSS web site. As of February 2010, CTX had covered more than 50% of the planet at 6 m/pixel.

  • Mars Science Laboratory (MSL, Curiosity rover)

    • Mast Cameras (Mastcam)

    • Mars Descent Imager (MARDI)

    • Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI)

The MSL rover is scheduled for launch in late 2011 and should land on Mars in August/September 2012. Under contract to the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the MSL Project for NASA, MSSS developed and delivered the MARDI, the MAHLI, and 2 fixed-focal length Mastcams (34 mm and 100 mm). In 2010, MSSS is completing two additional Mastcams with a zoom lens optical design; NASA will decide in late 2010 which pair of Mastcams will go to Mars. MSSS’s Michael Malin is the Principal Investigator for the Mastcams and MARDI; MSSS’s Kenneth Edgett is the Principal Investigator for MAHLI. MSSS will conduct the operations effort for these cameras, including the data validation and archiving, as it has done with the data acquired by MSSS cameras for the MRO and MGS Projects.

  • Juno

    • Junocam

Juno is a NASA New Frontiers effort to study Jupiter from a polar orbit. The spacecraft will launch in August 2011 and reach the giant planet in 2016. Under contract to the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory, MSSS is building the Junocam camera and will operate it through at least 2017. This is MSSS’s first camera for a spinning spacecraft.

  • Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO)

    • Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Cameras (LROC)

Under contract with Arizona State University, MSSS developed and delivered the LROC cameras—two Narrow Angle Cameras (NAC) based on the MRO CTX design and one Wide Angle Camera system (WAC) based on the MRO MARCI—for the LRO Project managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. These cameras are operated at Arizona State University by the LROC Principal Investigator, Mark Robinson. LRO reached the Moon in 2009 and the cameras are currently returning pictures.

  • Mars Exploration Rover (MER) Project

    • Science Team

This contract, with Cornell University, supports Dr. Malin’s participation as a Co-Investigator on the Mars Exploration Rover (Athena) science team. For about a week each month, MSSS operations personnel assist with the commanding/sequencing of cameras aboard the rovers Spirit and Opportunity. In 2004–2006, as part of its contract to the Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory for Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) operations, MSSS assisted with the relay of MER data from Mars, through the MOC, back to Earth. This relay effort included the real time return of critical data during each rover’s descent to the Martian surface.

Completed MSSS projects include:

  • Phoenix Mars Scout Lander Mars Descent Imager

  • Mars Semi-Autonomous Rover Operations Investigation

  • Mars Global Surveyor Mars Orbiter Camera

  • Mars Global Surveyor Thermal Emission Spectrometer Science Team

  • Cosmos 1 Planetary Society Camera

  • Camera Monitoring Assembly (CMA), Classified Earth Orbiter

  • Mars Surveyor 2001 Mars Descent Imager (MARDI)

  • Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) Imaging Team

  • Mars Polar Lander Mars Descent Imager (MARDI)

  • Mars Climate Orbiter Mars Color Imager

  • Clementine Lunar Data Processing and Analysis

  • Mars Pathfinder Science Team

  • Mars 96 Science Team

  • Mars Observer Camera

  • Magellan Venus Radar Orbiter Guest Investigator