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Iphone Mars NASA Hardware

Mars Rover Curiosity: Less Brainpower Than Apple's iPhone 5 256

Posted by timothy
from the when-I-was-a-boy-we-didn't-have-mars dept.
Nerval's Lobster writes "To give the Mars Rover Curiosity the brains she needs to operate took 5 million lines of code. And while the Mars Science Laboratory team froze the code a year before the roaming laboratory landed on August 5, they kept sending software updates to the spacecraft during its 253-day, 352 million-mile flight. In its belly, Curiosity has two computers, a primary and a backup. Fun fact: Apple's iPhone 5 has more processing power than this one-eyed explorer. 'You're carrying more processing power in your pocket than Curiosity,' Ben Cichy, chief flight software engineer, told an audience at this year's MacWorld."
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Mars Rover Curiosity: Less Brainpower Than Apple's iPhone 5

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  • by MagusSlurpy (592575) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:01PM (#42768151) Homepage

    . . . how wasteful most commercial software packages are.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:10PM (#42768227)

      Yeah, good comparison.

      Hundreds of millions of dollars spent on code for a very specific purpose compared to anything else.

      • by oakgrove (845019)

        Hundreds of millions of dollars spent on code

        The OS running on the phone didn't just spring out of nowhere. If you add up all the development time spent on the code running on an OOTB iPhone 5 what do you think would be the cost?

      • by SmallFurryCreature (593017) on Saturday February 02, 2013 @06:50AM (#42770409) Journal

        Mars rover: lasts for years. iPhone barely makes it through the day.

        Or how about speed? Mars rover several meters a day. iPhone, just sits there.

        User upgrades in the field? Mars rover: zero. iPhone: zero.

        Yeah yeah, you have more computing power in your pocket then in NASA machine. That was a fun stat for voyager news briefings. A decade ago. It is not funny anymore, it is just sad and a sign the reporter in question has no idea about tech. This stuff is for morning tv.

    • Agreed. When you're looking at as "tight" a package as Curiosity, you make some darned efficient code.
    • by smitty_one_each (243267) * on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:42PM (#42768723) Homepage Journal
      Or how bloody-minded comparisons tell you little. The reason you need horsepower on the board is not because computations are bearish. Rather, all the human interface code.
      I worked on government systems two decades ago that had four-decade old technology and worked great. Why? All the user interface agony was offloaded to dedicated consoles.
      Case in point: which is harder to code against: a command line interface, or a full-on GUI?
      • by Charliemopps (1157495) on Friday February 01, 2013 @11:50PM (#42769067)

        Well, if you're doing it in a modern software package like C# for example, there's little to no difference at all. I could write a stopwatch app... and the gui would have a single button and a display. The console version of which would be a lot harder to write. It all depends on what you're doing. Most GUIs make it easy to write for them, and offload a lot of their load onto the GPU.

        By the way, Curiosity's UI is still on earth... and on dozens of different computers at Nasa. It's kind of silly to say curiosity is only powered by this tiny processor.... that processor is just accepting and implementing commands. All the data crunching is happening back here on earth by massive banks of computers.

        P.S. Apple probably paid them to say this.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by VortexCortex (1117377)

        Case in point: which is harder to code against: a command line interface, or a full-on GUI?

        Do I get to use GNU readline and ncurses? If not then I'd rather code to the GUI. Seriously, you're kidding yourself if you think terminal discovery, terminal emulation, META-DATA for Signaling & Control within the char stream (escapes), even dynamic resizing, and KEYBOARD SCANCODE TRANSLATIONS are a walk in the park. Seriously, write your own OS from scratch, all that UI stuff (even for a console only OS) is every bit as complex as the GUI stuff. In fact, ncurses keeps multiple off-screen buffers

        • by martin-boundary (547041) on Saturday February 02, 2013 @03:20AM (#42769867)
          That's still graphical/visual programming in text mode, not command line programming in the conventional sense.

          A typical command line program simply reads data from STDIN, parameter values from argv[], and writes some values to STDOUT, maybe some error messages to STDERR. Command line programs don't care if the user is a human being or a script, unlike a ncurses program, whose fancy display formatting is all about human interactivity, but is often difficult to script.

      • by tqk (413719)

        Case in point: which is harder to code against: a command line interface, or a full-on GUI?

        What a stupid question. What are your priorities; pretty or correct?

        "Should I launch the missile now or not?" You can ask that question at the command line (defaulting to yes, no, or maybe), or you can offer the user a pop-up window which would do the same.

        Choices, choices, choices, ... Why do I so often feel like I'm in a Douglas Adams novel?

    • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:43PM (#42768731)

      ". . . how wasteful most commercial software packages are."

      That's certainly true. And the huge volume of our data, too, but mostly software. I have programs on my computer that are easily 20 times the size of entire hard drive of one of our office computers back in 1994... and that hard drive contained a complete install of Microsoft Office as well as Lotus 1-2-3 for those who didn't like Excel. With lots of room to spare. As a long-time programmer, I celebrate the increases in capability we have seen over the years, but I decry the bloated inefficiency of much of our modern software. I would go so far as to say I am dismayed by it sometimes.

    • by smash (1351) on Friday February 01, 2013 @11:01PM (#42768831) Homepage Journal

      Nah, it just goes to show how far behind the performance card the radiation hardened, military/aerospace grade equipment is.

      Plus, you really don't want to be bleeding edge on this sort of stuff. Discovering a mission ending critical CPU bug when you're astronomical scale distance away = bad.

  • So... (Score:5, Funny)

    by sootman (158191) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:02PM (#42768159) Homepage Journal

    ... not enough power to run Angry Birds then?

  • by ZorinLynx (31751) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:02PM (#42768161) Homepage

    Sure, the iPhone 5 may have more processing power... But I bet if you put that thing in space, the first cosmic ray that comes along will happily crash the OS. Game over.

    Hardware in spaecraft has to be hardened big time against radiation. Off the shelf junk will NOT work. Just sayin'.

    • by Joe_Dragon (2206452) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:06PM (#42768191)

      power use and battery life have to be dealt with as well.

    • by jfdavis668 (1414919) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:08PM (#42768207)
      That is why the Spirit rover got stuck, it was using Apple Maps.
    • by dfghjk (711126)

      Off the shelf junk works in space all the time. Processing power is unrelated to radiation shielding.

      Lack of processor power has to do with qualification processes and lead times. Your pitiful opinion is misdirected and uninformed.

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Off the shelf junk works in space all the time. Processing power is unrelated to radiation shielding.

        Lack of processor power has to do with qualification processes and lead times. Your pitiful opinion is misdirected and uninformed.

        OTS works in the Earth's magnetosphere. Get outside of that and you have to start making major design compromises, particularly with RAM.

      • by cnettel (836611)

        Off the shelf junk works in space all the time. Processing power is unrelated to radiation shielding.

        Lack of processor power has to do with qualification processes and lead times. Your pitiful opinion is misdirected and uninformed.

        Well, there are sound arguments for why smaller manufacturing proceses would inherently be more radiation sensitive, so saying that the two are unrelated is a bit misleading.

      • by tibit (1762298) on Saturday February 02, 2013 @11:39AM (#42771485)

        There's space, and then there's space. LEO is not really much of space, because you're in the magnetosphere bubble. Get into interplanetary space and things change very drastically. Radiation (cosmic ray) doses go up by 3-4 orders of magnitude. You have no clue what you're talking about.

    • Hardware in spaecraft has to be hardened big time against radiation. Off the shelf junk will NOT work. Just sayin'.

      And yet, the HTC Nexus One has passed many of those tests [engadget.com] without much problems.

    • And make sure you have more than one running at the same time. SpaceX uses non rad-hardened computers on Dragon, and in their last mission one computer had to reboot due to a radiation hit, but the system works fine since they have redundancy, this is explained in detail here [aviationweek.com]. So no, hardware in spacecraft does not have to be hardened against radiation, and off the shelf junk will work. Of course this doesn't mean you can use iPhone on Mars rover since in Dragon's case it's a short mission and they're under
    • Cosmic rays actually interact very little either with the Earth's magnetosphere, atmosphere, or sillicon chips. They're going so fast that they don't hang around long enough to interact with atomic nuclei unless they score a direct hit. There really isn't much difference in cosmic ray exposure between the ground and, say, the surface of the Moon. The real problem is solar weather. The Sun regularly spits out particle blasts that would fry anything made of semiconductors. Those blasts are what power the
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Jeremi (14640)

      Sure, the iPhone 5 may have more processing power... But I bet if you put that thing in space, the first cosmic ray that comes along will happily crash the OS. Game over.

      Yes, probably... but you could send up a dozen iPhone 5s in a box, all running the same software, set to auto-reboot-on-crash, and have the rover use whatever results the majority of the phones agree on. The iPhone RAIP array would be smaller, faster, and more reliable than what they are using now.

  • by bmo (77928)

    The iPod isn't expected to survive the same environment.

    Sometimes ruggedness beats clock cycles.

    --
    BMO

  • Misleading (Score:3, Informative)

    by Tourney3p0 (772619) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:03PM (#42768175)
    This is misleading. The rover has dozens of LRUs, all individually computing sensory input, crunching it, and sending it across the bus for the main computer to process. Yet it's only taking into account the main computer's processing power.
    • What is an LRU?
    • by lastx33 (2097770)
      Each control system requires comparatively little processing power but high reliability and redundancy. As an example, the back-up flight computer on the space shuttles was an HP-41CV/CX pocket calculator and later, an HP42S. These models were chosen specifically for build quality, reliability and lack of known inherent bugs, oh - and low outgassing.
      • Each control system requires comparatively little processing power but high reliability and redundancy. As an example, the back-up flight computer on the space shuttles was an HP-41CV/CX pocket calculator and later, an HP42S.

        Um, no. The flight computers (prime and backup) on the Shuttle were IBM AP-101 - if they went, it was game over as the Shuttle was fly-by-wire. No handheld toy need apply.

      • Dozens of little processing adds up to something more than a little processing. Point still stands. The comparison was done only to the central processor, which is misleading.
  • by Stele (9443) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:05PM (#42768181) Homepage

    And yet, from my observations, all the iPhone is ever used for is cutting virtual rope and tweeting (low-res) pictures of food. Seems like quite a waste by comparison.

  • And the Hubble Space Telescope was upgraded to an 80486 during one of the shuttle maintenance missions.
  • by gTsiros (205624) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:07PM (#42768205)

    Voyager 1/2 could run about 100K instructions per second, maybe less.

    It's about the objective, not raw processing power.

    And this is a fine opportunity! to pour some of my bile about the miserly state in which modern software is.

    • by 0123456 (636235)

      Voyager 1/2 could run about 100K instructions per second, maybe less.

      The Apollo Guidance Computer was about the same, I believe. Emulating it in real time takes about 2% of a 3GHz Pentium-4.

  • by sighted (851500) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:08PM (#42768217) Homepage
    Nitpick with the summary: the rover is not 'one eyed'. It uses a bunch: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/mission/rover/eyesandother/ [nasa.gov] That said, it does have that one big laser on its head: http://mars.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/mission/instruments/spectrometers/chemcam/ [nasa.gov] Robots on Mars with lasers. It doesn't get much better.
  • Years back I read that NASA uses older, battle tested chips rather than going with cutting edge hardware that might crap out on you from an obscure bug.

  • heh yea but (Score:5, Funny)

    by Osgeld (1900440) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:19PM (#42768291)

    Curiosity's computer(s) can handle extreme cold and radiation of space while keeping radio communication for millions of miles, An iPhone is prone to overheat during normal use and has had trouble sending a radio signal though your hand.

    • by aitikin (909209)
      I don't know about "overheat during normal use", but the rest of this statement is pretty damned accurate. Your iPhones have more processing power than your car usually does to, that's not considered a big deal because the processing power in your car is task specific and designed to handle much higher and lower temperature swings.
  • So? (Score:5, Funny)

    by JasoninKS (1783390) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:27PM (#42768343)
    I'll give Curiosity the gold medal any day.

    Lets compare, shall we?

    iPhone - sometimes flaky signal. Curiosity - working from millions of miles away. WIN Curiosity.
    iPhone - works on Earth within range of cell towers. Curiosity - working on frakking Mars. WIN Curiosity.
    iPhone - 1 day power life. Curiosity - radioactive power pack. WIN Curiosity.
    iPhone - plays games, makes calls, takes pictures of girls making duck faces. Curiosity - scientifically explores and photographs another planet. WIN Curiosity.
    iPhone - will shatter if you handle it wrong. Curiosity - dropped onto another world and still going. As designed. WIN Curiosity.

    Curiosity, doing way the hell more, with way the hell less.
  • way back in 2008... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mschaffer (97223) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:33PM (#42768387)

    Way back in 2008 most of the hardware and software development was complete, so it should be compared to the original iPhone or the iPhone 3G.

  • by steveha (103154) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:48PM (#42768443) Homepage

    Devices prepped for the harsh environments will take longer to build than consumer devices, so the spec gets frozen sooner.

    Plus, as long as it has enough horsepower, why mess with the design to upgrade it?

    P.S. This is not really a new observation. Consider PhoneSat, the project to take an off-the-shelf Android phone and use it as the heart of a micro-satellite. Clearly the processing power is enough, plus they can use the camera, inertial sensors, and I guess even GPS. (I wonder if the GPS software can cope with orbital altitude?)

    http://www.nasa.gov/offices/oct/home/PhoneSat.html [nasa.gov]

  • by spiritplumber (1944222) on Friday February 01, 2013 @09:49PM (#42768453) Homepage
    I've written an universal autopilot in 2007 that fits in 32K of eeprom. I say that not to brag, but to mean that these things are not unusual. Software on PLCs and so on is often very small -- it also has to be very good at not crashing. Fortunately that's all it has to be: nobody cares if the scroll bar doesn't glow when it's hit the end and so on, it just has to keep the power plant working :)
  • Why does it matter at all? It doesn't matter the relative processing power of my phone, there's a hell of a lot more to it than processing power. Like the simple fact that my phone isn't on a different planet.
  • ... aren't as smart as they think they are.

  • I could compare the software used in the Statue of Liberty to any phone on the market, and create the same headline.
  • by jones_supa (887896) on Friday February 01, 2013 @10:11PM (#42768567)
    The cold fact is just that running a rich graphical UI, games, etc. can actually require more horsepower than some serious science stuff, even though the latter might seem more demanding.
    • by LWATCDR (28044)

      Even if you look at the computers on things like the F-15 you will see small memories and slow CPUs. It takes time and a lot of money to get something like a spacecraft or radar system verified. You use what you know works. If an 8085 will do the mission why not use it?

  • Rovers still have the best hardware

    This one's even got a laser tough enough to blast rocks. It's gonna be awhile before we see a cell phone with those kind of specs.

    • This one's even got a laser tough enough to blast rocks. It's gonna be awhile before we see a cell phone with those kind of specs.

      Forget cell phones, I'm waiting for sharks!

  • by c (8461)

    Phew. I must be getting old. It feels like it was just yesterday that computing power was measured in VIC-20's. Now days it seems iPhones are a unit of speed, weight, pixel density *and* marketshare.

    It doesn't bode well for metrification...

  • They design those things so far in advance that they're pretty much obsolete as they're sitting on the launch pad. For all that the images coming back are pretty amazing, the CCD it's packing really isn't that great. If they started designing a new one now, by the time they go to launch it we'll all have lightfield 3-D infinitely zoomable cameras on our pocket-Watsons.
  • Hmm (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Ryanrule (1657199)

    Is there any point to this article? This seems like one of those "your desktop has more power than the space shuttle" type shits of the 90's.

  • Two reasons why the older hardware is better

    (1) It has to work - that is why you go in for older (read: more tested) hardware. What happens if a bug in the code causes a crash a million miles from home? You can't pull out the battery (oops, you can't do that for the iPhone either ;) ) - and reboot.
    (2) Who cares whether the processing power is greater? What matters is whether the hardware can support the software to do what the system was designed for (which in the rover case is fixed). You use the most REL

  • "Processing Power", what, at S.T.P.? Spherical frog in the microwave anyone?

    Under some forms of ideal conditions, perhaps. But think about what it'd take to get a stupid rubber case/cover for Curiosity?

    Take your beloved iPhone, take it out of the case, use it for the same 253 days (I actually don't know anyone who's used a single iPhone for that long, by the way), and see how that processing power manages to endure on the 254th day. No protector; just your pocket, and the keys in your pocket. Don't lose

  • I remember when 386/486 were still being sent up in space when current PC processors were many times faster. (still are?) They were tested, protected, and proven. Ask yourself this. Do you buy the newest process off Newegg (or whatever) and send it into space hoping it doesn't fail at a price of $500 million or in Curiosity's case $2.5 billion? Umm, hell no.

  • Curiosity has 17 cameras [nasa.gov], not one.

    I mean, if you're coing to criticize, get it right.

  • On the surface these comparisons are interesting but when you understand how these systems were designed you'll see it's not accurate. Curiosity is an example of an embedded system. The code that runs on it is only meant to operate the rover and its instruments. Comparing its hardware to a general purpose computer meant to run various applications is flawed. And because their purposes are different so are their operating systems.

    The last time I read about VxWorks and a Mars rover had to do with Pathfinder.

  • "To give the Mars Rover Curiosity the brains it needs ...

    FTFY!!!111 It's a fucking machine! $deity, I hate this PC garbage! THINK!

  • by DeBaas (470886) on Saturday February 02, 2013 @05:23AM (#42770177) Homepage

    Here I am, brain the size of a mars rover, and they tell me to text 'OMG grl, wassup'....

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