HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
September 3, 2007, Herald Journal

Martian surface harbors earthly intelligence


This intelligence is still “roaming” the red planet.

They have been traversing the surface of the red Martian landscape since 2004.

The two spacecraft, Spirit, which arrived on January 3, 2004 followed by Opportunity 21 days later, hold some of our planet’s best intelligence inside them.

As we have seen, the photographs they have sent back to Earth are amazing.

The Martian space rovers have a total of 18 cameras, which produce 1024 by 1024 pixel images at 12 bits per pixel. They are then compressed using a special file compression format called ICER, before being stored and sent to Earth.

Most of us are familiar with JPEG picture files, but ICER was designed specifically for deep-space applications. ICER achieves high compression functioning needed for transmission back to Earth, while providing excellent image quality.

The thousands of photographs taken on Mars during the last three and a half years from the rovers have shown how majestic the surface is. To me, some photographs look like Sedona in Arizona or even the Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Those Martian rovers use a UNIX based computer software operating system called VXworks. This provides the technology to perform their basic ground operations, data collections and Mars-to-Earth communications.

Wind River Systems Inc., based in Alameda, California is the maker of this software operating system.

The computer hardware that each Mars Rover runs with is a 32-bit RAD6000 microprocessor. This Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) contains over one million transistors and operates at a speed of 20 million instructions per second. The manufacturer is BAE Systems, a large global company which I learned has an office in Fridley Minn..

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) was provided with the RAD6000 microprocessor by BAE Systems (who manufactured it for the Air Force). The AFRL has an interesting document that I found on the Kirtland Air Force Base website which explains on how the Mars Rovers use this technology.

The AFRL states that “. . . these computers can withstand the harsh radiation environment of space and operate reliably over long-term missions.”

I was reading some information on the NASA websites, not just about the two crafts that are on Mars now, but also about some of the other spacecraft that have made the journey into space.

In 1961, NASA’s two Mercury space capsules that made manned suborbital flights had no computers at all. The information the Mercury astronauts used for attitude control, retro-rocket timing, and re-entry was radioed up to the spacecraft from NASA controllers on the ground. These flight controllers used IBM computers which made the calculations.

The first digital computer the astronauts used in space was called the Gemini Digital Computer.

This was IBM’s first silicon semiconductor computer.

The design and development stage started in 1962.

Dale F. Bachman of IBM characterized it as the “. . . last of a dying breed. It was an airborne computer, rugged, special purpose, and slow.”

An interesting test that was mentioned stated that one of the Gemini digital computers restarted successfully after being soaked in salt water for two weeks.

It was in 1962 that IBM received the contract for the first guidance computer for the Saturn series of launch vehicles.

IBM also built the guidance computer that helped maneuver the two-man Gemini spacecraft. This government contract was for $36 million dollars; remember this is in 1962 dollars. This new guidance computer was 15 times more powerful than the IBM computer systems used during Project Mercury. This computer system handled over 25 billion calculations a day during the time when the Gemini capsules were in flight.

1965 is the year that an IBM guidance computer is used on all Gemini flights, including the first spaceship rendezvous, with Gemini 6 astronauts Walter Schirra and Thomas Stafford and Gemini 7 Astronauts Frank Borman and James Lovell. This computer weighed only 59 pounds and occupied only 1.35 cubic feet of space.

During the rendezvous of the two Gemini spacecrafts, this onboard system performed some 7,000 calculations a second to bring the two Gemini spacecraft vehicles nose-to-nose, 120-feet apart, 185 miles above the Earth.

December 2, 1993 the first notebook computer’s were used on the Space Shuttle Endeavour. The IBM ThinkPad 750 was used by the crew of the Endeavor to observe color images and sketches of the Hubble Space Telescope that were on the computers hard drive. This was the shuttle mission that made the repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope.

For more information visit http://www.ibm.com/us/ and in the search engine on the top of the webpage type in “space flight.”

To learn more about the RAD6000 computer and how it is used on Mars, go to the Kirtland AFB Website at http://www.kirtland.af.mil/ and type in “RAD6000” in the search engine.