NASA’s latest Mars rover has the same processor as an iMac from 1998

NASA’s brand-new Perseverance rover is the most superior machine that’s ever landed on Mars. However in terms of rovers, “state of the artwork” is a subjective time period. Perseverance is working on none apart from a PowerPC 750, a single-core, 233MHz processor with simply 6 million transistors that’s most well-known for powering the authentic “bondi blue” iMac from 1998. It’s the same kind of processor that NASA already makes use of on its Curiosity rover.

That will look like a waste to some. In any case, even with the issue of shopping for laptop elements today, certainly NASA might have discovered the funds for one thing like Intel’s $500 Core i9-10900K CPU (with 10 cores and a max clock velocity of 5.3GHz) someplace in the $2.7 billion price of Perseverance. However as New Scientist explains, such an superior chip is definitely a detriment to the distinctive working circumstances of Mars.

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That’s largely as a result of Mars’ environment affords far much less safety from dangerous radiation and charged particles than Earth’s environment. A nasty burst of radiation can badly wreck the delicate electronics of a contemporary processor — and the extra advanced the chip, the extra can go fallacious. Plus, at 138 million miles away, it’s not like NASA can simply swap out the processor if issues go sideways. Due to these circumstances, Perseverance truly options two computing modules: one is a backup simply in case one thing goes fallacious. (A 3rd copy of the module can be on board for picture evaluation.)

To make the system much more sturdy, the PowerPC 750 chip in Perseverance is a little bit completely different than the one in the previous iMacs. It’s technically a RAD750 chip, a particular variant that’s hardened towards radiation and prices upwards of $200,000. The chip is a well-liked one for spacecraft, too: along with Perseverance and Curiosity, it additionally powers the Fermi Area Telescope, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Deep Impression comet-hunting spacecraft, and the Kepler telescope, amongst others.

Whereas the processor could also be weak in comparison with a contemporary smartphone or gaming PC, NASA’s spec sheet for Perseverance notes that it’s much more highly effective than earlier rovers like Spirit or Alternative: its 200MHz clock velocity is 10 instances sooner than these older rovers, and with 2GB of flash reminiscence, it affords eight instances the storage. (Rounding issues out, Perseverance additionally has 256MB of RAM, in case you had been seeking to construct your personal rover.)

However whereas the chip itself has been to Mars earlier than, Perseverance options some new laptop know-how that’s debuting on the planet for the first time: Linux, which powers the Ingenuity helicopter that can try to fly autonomously on Mars as a part of the rover’s mission.

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