NASA space tech: From Pioneer to Curiosity

NASA space tech: From Pioneer to Curiosity

Summary: As Voyager celebrates its 35th birthday and Curiosity starts on the most exciting Mars mission ever, we look back at the IT under the hood of six NASA projects that have made science fiction into everyday fact.


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  • The same technology that has revolutionised our lives has changed space science forever, building ever-cleverer robots exploring ever farther into space.

    As the Voyager probes celebrate their 35th birthday and prepare to leave the Solar System, and as the Curiosity rover starts on the most exciting Mars mission ever, we look back at the IT under the hood that has made science fiction into everyday fact.

    Pioneer 10

    Launched in 1972, Pioneer 10 (above) was the first imaging mission to fly past Jupiter, Although it is widely reported that it used an Intel 4004 processor for navigation, mission sequencing and communication, it in fact used a custom processor system built from a variety of standard logic chips, with individual commands handled by dedicated circuits.

    Storage was 49,152 bits of magnetic core memory, which was too heavy to be expanded further. But alternatives were pricey — a proposed upgrade to 1 megabit (256kB) of chip memory for a later mission was priced at $630,000 in 1974.

    Pioneer 10 and its sister probe Pioneer 11 were the first missions to have a recognisably modern computer system capable of multiple commands and a measure of independent operation, due in part to the availability of high-density logic chips and the need to manage short, high-intensity science-gathering flypasts at a distance from Earth that precluded direct commands in real time.

    However, they were still recognisably derived from earlier probe thinking, where pre-programmed sequences unaffected by local information drove manoeuvres.

    An in-depth NASA design document discussing the Pioneer architecture and future developments into what would become the Voyager probes can be found here (PDF).

    Image: NASA

  • The Viking project to land robot laboratories on Mars saw many developments that influenced spacecraft design throughout the '70s and '80s.

    The landers pioneered full redundancy and local processing, and were capable of autonomously guiding themselves to the surface. The processors themselves were dual Honeywell HDC 402 processors, 24-bit discrete logic designs running at around 300KHz and each with 18 Kwords of plated-wire memory.

    The system software was developed by aerospace contractor Martin Marietta and included virtualisation and multitasking features.

    The original plan was to use a more capable computer that could have its instructions changed remotely, but weight problems caused by other aspects of the spacecraft design forced the selection of the lighter — but only third-choice — Honeywell systems.

    However, Martin Marietta had adopted a software-first design policy, in contrast to previous projects where the hardware came first, imposing strict limits to changes. With software-first, the developers ran their software in an emulator — indeed, the final hardware was only delivered a couple of months before launch — and were thus able to adapt more quickly to specification changes and discoveries.

    More details on the Viking and related projects can be found here.

    Image: NASA

  • The two Voyager probes launched in 1977 to study Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Pluto, and remain in contact with Earth as they move into interstellar space.

    The probes have identical designs, with six computers apiece in three roles. Each has a duplicate Computer Command System (CCS) — 18-bit word, interrupt-type processors with 4,096 words each of plated wire, non-volatile memory; a duplicate Flight Data System (FDS) — a 16-bit word machine with modular memories and 8,198 words each; and a duplicate Attitude and Articulation Control System (AACS) — 18-bit word machines with 4,096 words each. That's a total of around 88 Kbytes of memory.

    Each computer is a custom design by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which runs the project, and is built by General Electric. The CCS runs the spacecraft and reports problems back to base; the FDS manages the scientific instruments and prepares data for transmission back to Earth; while the AACS performs thruster and instrument platform manoeuvres.

    Both Voyager probes have suffered a variety of hardware failures during their lives. Most of their experiments are now turned off, following the last planetary encounters, but with reprogramming and about eight years of life left in the nuclear generators, both have some distance left to run.

    Image: NASA

Topics: Nasa / Space, After Hours

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • Bits Bytes and nibbles

    "...upgrade to 1 megabit (256kB) of chip memory ..."

    How many bits were there in a Byte in 1974? :-)
    • bits

      8 bits to a byte I think... 4 bits were a nibble...
      • Sheridan's quibble wasn't with the nibble...

        ...but with the author's erroneous math. 1 megabit does not equal 256kb. It's equal to 125kb.
        • kB, I mean

          Kilobyte. Typo.
          • Far too subtle...

            Yup, I was trying to nudge gently rather than scream abusively about a typo or mathematical inexactitute - I even added a 'smiley'. Guess I should just be direct in future but I can never resist the opportunity to use the much neglected 'nibble'.
            I don't think it's ever used as an abbreviation as it could be confused with Newtons but, just perhaps...
            1mb = 265kn = 128kB
  • Byte

    Hey guys, the Intel 4004 is/was a 4-bit microprocessor. And it was not written that a byte equals 8 bits. A byte is the basic addressable element in computer architecture, not necessarily 8 bits. It is hardware dependent and there is no official standard that dictates that a byte is 8 bits. So in this instance, the author is correct. One megabit is egual to 256 KB.
  • Byte, undefined?

    Hmmm... having checked the usual source, I have to agree that it isn't 'set-in-stone' that a byte is 8 bits. However, back in 1976 we were using substantial numbers of 8080s. 6800s, 6502s (and even a few Z80s) and the term byte was generally accepted as being 8 bits - as I suggest it is now.

    While the term 'word' often needs clarification it is now usually thought of as 16 bits but some of us remember the PDP8 with words of 12 bits. Interestingly, the usual source quotes the 4004 as using '4 bit data words' (not bytes). However, Intel data for the 4004 refers to one word instructions being 8 bits and two word instructions being 16 bits - but I don't see them mentioning bytes anywhere.

    So, Superbiker, I take your point regarding absolute definitions and I will even say; "Mea culpa". But... with the wide acceptance of byte meaning 8 bits, perhaps journalists could make it clear when they mean another size. I've never had to check that a hard disk or RAM that quotes the size in bytes means 8 bit per byte - and I hope I don't have to start now. (Bad enough that hard disks use powers of 10 while the rest of IT uses powers 2).

    So, officially ??? -
    bit = single binary digit (1 or zero)
    nibble = group of four bits
    octet = 8 bits or 2 nibbles
    byte = one or more bits (context dependant)
    word = one or more bits (context dependant)

    I need to go and edit/clarify a lot of my documents - and try to work out if I've bytten more or less than I can nibble!
  • One small correction

    The Voyagers were sent to study Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, not Pluto. Pluto will be visited for the first time ever in 2015 by the New Horizons probe.