NASA’s brand new rover Perseverance is the most modern machine ever landed on Mars. But when it comes to rovers, “state of the art” is a subjective term. Persistence runs on none other than the PowerPC 750, a single-core, 233MHz processor with just 6 million transistors, best known for powering the original 1998 Bondi blue iMac. This is the same type of processor NASA already uses in its Rover out of curiosity.
This may seem like a loss to some. After all, even with the difficulty of buying computer parts these days, certainly NASA could find a budget for something like Intel̵
This is largely because the atmosphere of Mars offers much less protection from harmful radiation and charged particles than the Earth’s atmosphere. Poor radiation can destroy the poorly sensitive electronics of a modern processor – and the more complex the chip, the more it can go wrong. Also, at a distance of 138 million miles, NASA can’t just replace the CPU if things go awry. Due to these conditions, Perseverance actually has two calculation modules: one is a backup, just in case something goes wrong. (A third copy of the module is also on the image analysis board.)
To make the system even more durable, the PowerPC 750 chip in Perseverance is slightly different from that in older iMacs. This is a technical chip RAD750, a special version that is hardened against radiation and costs over $ 200,000. The chip is also popular for spacecraft: in addition to perseverance and curiosity, it also powers the Fermi space telescope, the lunar reconnaissance orbiter, the Deep Impact comet and the Kepler telescope.
Although the processor may be weak compared to a modern smartphone or gaming computer, NASA’s Perseverance specification notes that it is far more powerful than earlier rovers such as Spirit or Opportunity: its 200MHz clock speed is 10 times faster. from those of older rovers and with 2GB of flash memory, it offers eight times more storage space. (Rounding things out, Perseverance also has 256MB of RAM in case you want to create your own rover.)
But while the chip itself has been to Mars before, Perseverance offers some new computing technology that debuts on the planet for the first time: Linux, which powers the Ingenuity helicopter, which will try to fly autonomously to Mars as part of Perseverance’s mission.