Exploring Mars with a 2-megapixel camera: The tech behind Curiosity

Exploring Mars with a 2-megapixel camera: The tech behind Curiosity

Summary: The Mars rover is trying to find out if the Red Planet was ever habitable. Here's the tech it is using to carry out its mission.

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TOPICS: Nasa / Space
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  • Curiosity has two identical 'Rover Compute Element' (RCE) computers, based on BAE Systems-made RAD750 CPUs.

    The RAD750 single-board system uses IBM's PowerPC architecture and is in some ways fairly similar to the chip that powered the original iMac back in 1998. It's clocked at 200MHz and uses 256MB of DRAM, along with just 2GB of flash memory.

    As with much of the equipment onboard Curiosity, it seems very old fashioned now, but then again the rover had to be specified as long ago as 2004.

    It's not quite an old iMac processor, though. The RAD750 is specifically designed to withstand the huge amounts of radiation it faces on the Martian surface, as well as temperatures ranging between -55°C and 70°C.

    Image credit: BAE Systems via Presse Citron

  • Curiosity uses a variety of software, but the core is a real-time operating system (RTOS) called VxWorks, which is made by Intel subsidiary Wind River Systems.

    VxWorks, which is designed for embedded devices, has been around for 27 years in one form or another. These days it's used in cars, routers, industrial machines — and of course Mars rovers.

    Image credit: NASA

  • Curiosity carries 17 cameras, four of which are relatively high-resolution at two megapixels — remember, the specifications were set by 2004.

    The very earliest images from Curiosity came via its black-and-white hazard avoidance cameras (hazcams). The more recent colour pictures come from cameras such as the one pictured above, which is one of the rover's two mastcams.

    The two mastcams are the same, except one (pictured) has a telephoto lens, and the other a wide-angle lens.

    Image credit: NASA

Topic: Nasa / Space

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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5 comments
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  • Thanks, nice article

    However, I am curious to know if Linux-based hard RTOSs have finally caught up with VxWorks. In other words, could there be competition in the OS space for JPL's next land rover (wherever it might be deployed)?
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Short answer is no.

      Between Integrity and VxWorks, they have a strong lock on the industry when it comes to the specific needs of the scalable high reliability software industry. Linux simply does not offer the tools and capabilities (and the testing effort to get there is monumental) to compete effectively.

      Many of the OSes are also home grown. They are very targeted toward the HW platforms they work with and contain very custom designs you simply don't find on COTS hardware.
      Bruizer
  • Thanks, nice article

    However, I am curious to know if Linux-based hard RTOSs have finally caught up with VxWorks. In other words, could there be competition in the OS space for JPL's next land rover (wherever it might be deployed)?
    Rabid Howler Monkey
  • NASA is rad

    I wish I could just sit there and watch Curiousity do its thing. I guess for now I will have to be satisfied watching my Roomba...
    lippidp
  • Plutonium powered RTG

    It's a shame about the pollution left on earth by the RTG though...

    http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2012/08/mars_rover_curiosity_its_plutonium_power_comes_courtesy_of_soviet_nukes_.html
    newplanetx