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NASA: Your smartphone is as smart as the Curiosity rover

Sharon Gaudin | Aug. 10, 2012
While the Mars Curiosity rover is the most complex machine NASA has ever sent to another planet, the computer that runs it is no more powerful than the one in your smartphone.

"This project has been in development for more than 10 years," he said. "Multi-core, space-certified chips weren't available back then. Now, they are available, so they'll probably be used in projects eight to 10 years from now."

Grinblat added that any spacecraft being launched in the next several years still won't carry multi-core chips because of the long development time. "Because of that, we lag behind in the latest and greatest, especially since there's so much work to do to make them space ready," he said.

Curiosity only has two computers onboard: one main computer and one backup, according to Kipp. Both have been hardened to handle the rigors of temperature extremes and solar radiation.

Neither is a supercomputer. In fact, they're not even as powerful as today's laptops. Grinblat explained that the computer doesn't have to be highly powerful. It needs to be able to handle basic functions, but it's more important that it be able to survive and work in the harsh conditions in space and on Mars.

"It's not more powerful than my cell phone," said Grinblat. "They have to be tolerant to radiation so they run much slower and their feature sizes are much larger than modern-day processors. The smaller they are, the more susceptible they are to radiation. We 're constantly getting bombarded with particles. A processor with a much smaller feature size would mean more errors than it could handle."

NASA released photos taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing the rover surrounded by the landing sites of several of its components, such as its heat shield, parachute and sky crane.

Because of this, he added that an Intel Core i7 processor, for example, wouldn't survive a day on Mars because of the extremes in temperature.

Despite the fact that Curiosity doesn't have a huge amount of compute power, it's still a smart machine, able to scan its environment and make decisions.

Kipp noted that the rover has an Auto Nav, or automatic navigation, mode, which enables it to monitor its own wheels for slippage and use cameras to scan the ground for rocks or holes that could impede its travel.

"It can drive and figure out if the hazard poses a risk to the safety of the rover," said Kipp. "If it believes it might, it will stop and phone home and verify if we want it to keep driving. It's pretty smart. We have a heightened confidence in it."

The rover, which can receive software updates from Earth, also has a robotic arm, which is designed to use various tools to dig for rock and soil samples, as well as to scoop up the samples and deposit them in onboard scientific instruments.


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