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The next time a NASA rover blasts off to explore Mars or some other planet, it might be equipped with a new type of "do-it-all" camera developed by an engineering team at the University of Arizona.

The prototype of the "Astrobiological Imager" – described in a research paper featured on the cover of a recent issue of the journal Astrobiology – consists of an off-the-shelf digital point-and-shoot camera with some surprisingly simple modifications. A slightly more sophisticated version, mounted on a rover, could do what even NASA's latest and greatest Mars rover, Curiosity, can't: identify, photograph and even analyze patches of soil or rocks from afar and in extreme close-up, all with the same camera.

The team figured out how to take advantage of different lens adapters that can be mounted in front of a single camera to enable it to take images ranging from a macroscopic scale – think landscape – all the way down to a microscopic scale – think cells and bacteria – thus spanning at least six orders of magnitude.

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