Curious why Mars rover has such a dinky camera and computer? – Future of Tech on NBCNews.com

(W)hat’s up with the spacecraft’s dinky 2 megapixel camera and equally dinky PowerPC 750 computer chip?

The spacecraft also has just 4.5 gigabytes of data storage, Information Management points out in a profile of Ann Devereaux, deputy lead for the entry, descent and landing stage of Curiosity’s mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“When people saw the data volumes we process and the memory space they’d inevitably ask, ‘You’re taking this to Mars?” Deveraux told the newsletter. “Why isn’t this the latest gear? My memory stick has more memory than your whole computer.”

The short answer, NASA scientists and space observers point out, is the team started working on the mission in 2004. At the time, these components were state-of-the-art technology already approved for the rigors of space travel including radiation bombardment and temperature extremes.

via Curious why Mars rover has such a dinky camera and computer? – Future of Tech on NBCNews.com.

Space-qualified avionics are almost always two or three generations behind top-of-the-line. Like the article said, the components have to be tested to make sure they will hold up in the radiation environment. You don’t want a $2B spacecraft failing 34 million miles from home because of a $50 part. Even with testing, we can only simulate so well. In the early days of the last rover mission, Spirit rebooted itself 40 times in one day. The engineers at JPL finally had to reformat the flash memory to get it back in working order.

Also, it’s part and parcel of a complicated design that at some point, you have to lock down your parts list. Computers keep improving, but you can’t afford to start over with a design every time something new comes out. This also relates to the “109%” level of the Space Shuttle Main Engine. Sometime in the 1970’s, the 100% output for the SSME was set down in the concrete of a requirements document. Various improvements were made to the engine over the years, but what was defined as 100% never moved. It was easier and less chance of confusion to say 104% or 109% than to change the paperwork.

3 thoughts on “Curious why Mars rover has such a dinky camera and computer? – Future of Tech on NBCNews.com”

  1. Heaven forfend NASA adopt MilSpec acquisition policies. If they did, the specs would have changed at least 5 times since 2004 and it would have over run the budget by at least 80%.

    1. MilSpecs occasionally show up. One of the budget killers is the set aside for small business. Specify a part and pay at least 15% more for a 8a company to buy from the large company and sell it to you.

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