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Good news: your smartphone will work on Mars

33 Jan 2024

A regular reader emailed me yesterday pointing out the end of one of NASA's most successful planetary missions.

It was the demise of the amazing coaxial helicopter known as Ingenuity.

This craft has been hopping its way across the surface of Mars for far longer than was ever expected but finally came a gutsa when one of its frail rotors was damaged, perhaps as a result of a slightly imperfect landing (albeit, not as imperfect as that performed by Japan's latest mission to the moon).

As has almost become the norm for NASA craft, Ingenuity far exceeded its planned service life and performance, potentially opening new options for planetary exploration.

However, what impressed me most about this mission is something not often mentioned.

I'm talking about the fact that most of the electronics onbord Ingenuity were "off the shelf" consumer-grade items, not hi-performace, radiation-hardened special grade mil-spec stuff.

Arstechnica has an excellent piece in which it discusses this technology.

The fact that a 500g, uber-expensive RAD750 computer could be substituted with an el-cheapo Snapdragon 801 smartphone processor which, incidentally, delivers three orders of magnitude more computing power, is kind of amazing.

Everything you read about electronics in space indicates that a regular store-bought CPU would be incredibly vulnerable to both transient (bit-fipping) and permanent damage from the high level of ionizing radiation encountered outside the protection of our atmosphere and magnetic field. Yet, the little ARM-based CPU seemed to do the job, outlasting the more fundemental components such as the carbon-fibre rotors.

That regular store-bought batteries also exceeded their nominal ratings to consistently delivery power through freezing cold as well as warmer temperatures also boggles the mind somewhat.

I can't help but wonder, in light of all this, whether most of our space stuff is wildly over-spec'd and consequently hugely overpriced, for what it does.

The puny (but radiation-hardened) RAD750 computer normally used in NASA sapce missions costs a whopping NZ$400K whereas the Snapdragon 801 can be grabbed from AliExpress for NZ$12 plus $5 shipping.

Of course when you're spending US$2.7 billion on a mission to mars, saving a few hundred grand on a CPU isn't probably a big thing and the entire mission is only as reliable as the weakest link so maybe these el-cheapo options are best reserved for secondary and more risky things such as the little helicopter.

Never the less, this does remind us that, just like aviation, space exploration doesn't always use "the latest and greatest" in the way of electronics and computing hardware. Robust reliability is the core attribute of anything that's going to be hurled millions of Km away from the nearest service tech so nobody really wants to take a chance on comparitively unproven tech, do they?

I have to admit that when NASA proposed the Ingenuity helicopter, I was skeptical as hell. Sometimes it's just great to be proven wrong -- and this was one of those occasions.

Another positive outcome of this mission is that you can be pretty sure your smartphone will still work if you find yourself stuck on the surface of Mars. Mind you, getting signal to call for an Uber may be a different problem.

And, as the reader whose email sparked todays column so accurately stated though, "bloody dangerous things these drones!!" :-)

Carpe Diem folks!

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