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

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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Topic: Innovation
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1 of 6 NASA

NASA is due to give an update on Friday about the progress of its Mars rover, Curiosity.

The is to figure out if Mars was ever habitable. To do that, it has the equipment to spy out interesting-looking rocks, head over to them and drill out powder samples, which it can then analyse internally before sending the results back to Earth.

There's a lot for the aptly-named Curiosity to do, and here's a run-down of tech it's using to do it.

To start with, the rover gets its energy from a 125W nuclear battery, specifically a plutonium-powered radioisotope thermoelectric generator.

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2 of 6 BAE Systems via Presse Citron

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.

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3 of 6 NASA

Curiosity uses a variety of , 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.

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4 of 6 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.

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5 of 6 NASA

This diagram shows one of the most important instruments on board — or rather inside — Curiosity.

Once the rover's drills and scoops have got hold of some rock to analyse, they pass it on to CheMin (Chemistry and Mineralogy), a powder X-ray diffraction instrument.

CheMin analyses the samples using an X-ray beam, in order to figure out what minerals they contain. By doing that, the idea is to work out whether water was involved in the rocks' formation, or indeed whether the rocks may contain a potential energy source.

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6 of 6 NASA

Curiosity carries two radio systems: an X-band system that it can use to communicate directly with Earth, and a UHF system that requires less power, but also necessitates relaying the data via the two Mars orbiters.

One of the orbiters, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (pictured above) has its own X band antenna and can manage up to 6Mbps — it launched in 2005 and has been used for relaying data in this way from the now-defunct .

The older orbiter, named 2001 Mars Odyssey, is also being used to relay UHF signals from Curiosity.

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