NASA’s Perseverance rover is powered by a 23-year-old CPU
Dimapur, March 3 (EMN): NASA‘s $2.7 billion Mars Perseverance rover landed itself on the surface of Mars on February 18, 2021, and it achieved that feat with the help of a processor that once powered the 1998 iMac G3.
You would think that a $2.7 billion Mars Perseverance rover that is designed to guide itself to the surface of a distant planet would have a state-of-the-art processor but surprisingly, NASA chose a 23-year-old processor — IBM’s PowerPC 750 CPU — to do the job.
The PowerPC 750 CPU is a single-core with approximately 6 million transistors and a clock speed of 233MHz. And yes, the Perseverance has only 256MB of RAM to work with. By today’s standards, this processor wouldn’t even compete with the processors that power our smartphones let alone a PC.
In comparison, Apple‘s new M1 chip, which powers its Macbook‘s, has 16 billion transistors and a maximum clock speed of 3.2GHz. But NASA is not worried about the speed of its rover’s processor but rather, it is looking for reliability.
“A bad burst of radiation can badly wreck the sensitive electronics of a modern processor,” according to a report by the New Scientist.
Mars‘ atmosphere offers far less protection from harmful radiation and charged particles than Earth‘s atmosphere. Therefore, if NASA wants to send a rover to the surface of Mars, all of the rover’s components — including the CPU — should be reliable enough to withstand these hard conditions.
According to the report, the RAD750 variant of the PowerPC 750 inside the Perseverance has been hardened to withstand 200,000 to 1,000,000 Rads and temperatures between −55 and 125 degrees Celsius.
This isn’t the first time that NASA has used an older CPU to power its space probes. In 2006, NASA used a Mongoose-V processor, a radiation-hardened version of the original Sony PlayStation‘s MIPS R3000 CPU, on its New Horizons probe.