IBM processors powering Mars mission

Big Blue's Power Architecture chips are in use on the project

The IBM processors that power the Xbox 360, many cars and some of the world’s fastest supercomputers have launched into space on NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander.

The spacecraft will use microprocessors based on IBM’s Power Architecture instruction set to help search for signs of extraterrestrial life.

“This is the onboard machine that runs all of the functions that will have to be performed somewhat autonomously on Mars when it lands,” says Dave McQueeney, chief technology officer for IBM’s contracting business with the US Federal Government. “These are the computers inside the spacecraft that are responsible for the navigation, control, scientific instruments, power management ... the things that are the brains of the Lander itself.”

McQueeney jokingly boasts that IBM has “100% market share on Mars,” with Power Architecture processors running inside the satellites orbiting the Red Planet as well as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers launched by NASA in 2003. Like previous missions, the Mars Lander will use BAE Systems’ RAD6000 computer, which is based on Power Architecture technology licensed to BAE by IBM.

Building processors versatile enough to be used in video game consoles, washing machines, automobiles and mainframes helped IBM make processors that could be used in outer space — and IBM’s experience in space missions has helped the company here on Earth.

Lessons learned from the high video throughput of the PlayStation 3 and the extreme scalability and reliability of mainframes were factors in the processors being used on the Mars Lander, McQueeney says.

Similarly, the experience gained in building processors that make the most efficient use of energy on a spacecraft is helping IBM make datacentres more efficient at a time when limitations of space and power are increasingly important, he says.

“When you’re designing something for a spacecraft, you’re going to have some very strict requirements on power and speed”.

While many PC-based processors are “elegantly designed” to solve a narrow set of problems, it would not be economically feasible to build processors that are good only for space travel, McQueeney says.

An application built for NASA might be very valuable, but the market is small. Video game consoles, on the other hand, represent a huge market, and designers have met the need with some of the most sophisticated systems found in consumer devices.

“The game console market is really interesting because actually they have tremendous performance demands,” McQueeney says. “If you look at the PS3 it’s about 220 gigaflops in the video processor, which is a pretty potent supercomputer by anyone’s measure, sitting in a game console.”

More important matters wait on Mars, where IBM technology will support a mission to characterise the planet’s geology and climate, determine if life ever arose there, and prepare for human exploration.

The Mars Lander will be outfitted with seven scientific instruments, including a nearly-eight-foot robotic arm with a camera; a thermal and evolved-gas analyser to measure characteristics of heated soil samples; a meteorological station; and imagers that will produce high-resolution pictures of the landing site.

The RAD6000 computer made by BAE is radiation-hardened and will protect Power Architecture processors from the cosmic onslaught. Without such protection, radiation can streak through chips and create rogue charged particles that would create havoc on the mission.

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