IBM returning to Mars with Power Architecture processors

NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander launches tomorrow


The same IBM technology that powers video game consoles, automobiles and supercomputers will leave for Mars tomorrow on NASA’s latest mission.

The IBM processors that power your Xbox 360, the car you drive to work and some of the world’s fastest supercomputers will launch into space tomorrow on NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander.

The $420 million 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,” explains Dave McQueeney, CTO for IBM’s federal contracting business. “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.”

IBM’s Power Architecture has proven its versatility since being launched in 1990. Today, processors based on the Power Architecture instruction set are used in all three major video game consoles, half of automobile models worldwide and IBM Blue Gene supercomputers.

McQueeney jokingly boasts that IBM has “100% market share on Mars,” with Power Architecture processors running inside 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 incredible video throughput of the PlayStation 3 and the extreme scalability and reliability of mainframes factor into the processors being used on the Mars Lander, McQueeney says.

Similarly, the experience building processors that make the most efficient use of energy on a spacecraft is helping IBM make data centers more efficient in 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,” he says.

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

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 characterize 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 analyzer 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 therefore 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.

“The engineers at BAE are experts in how to design chips that can survive that kind of onslaught of cosmic radiation,” McQueeney says. “It’s a great marriage of technical capabilities.”

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