A Computer Built For Mars August 11, 2012Posted by tkcollier in In The News, Science & Technology.
Tags: Computers, Curiosity, Mars Rover, Science, Space
The PowerPC RAD750 chip at the heart of the Curiosity Mars rover’s central computer can withstand temperature extremes and massive doses of space radiation without the dreaded ‘blue screen of death.’
“First, you have to develop the radiation hardening techniques and actually implement them in the design,” said Scott Doyle, a BAE systems engineer for satellite electronics. “The next step is you have to qualify each of those individual components and that qualification is normally a year, a year-and-a-half, just to do that.””Then they get integrated on the board, and that board has to go through qualification activity to prove out the board. Then once that board gets integrated into the satellite at the system level, there’s several years worth of qualification testing that goes in at the satellite level. You add all that up, you’re talking five to eight years of qualification work.”
The resulting computers can cost anywhere from $200,000 to a half-million dollars. While all that might seem like overkill to an outsider, space-based computers simply have to work. “There’s no repairman in space,” Doyle said.
But given the unavoidable limitations in processing speed and memory, Curiosity’s programmers face a daunting task when it comes to writing software. “What’s hard about this, my phone has a processor that’s 10 times as fast as the processor that’s on Curiosity and it has 16 times as much storage as Curiosity has and my phone doesn’t have to land anything on Mars,” Cichy said. “All my phone has to do is follow (a friend’s) Twitter feed.”