Photo Credit: NASA and Alterations by David Fuchs; original by Rama, licensed CC-by-SA, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
It’s been well known that NASA has been on an increasingly low budget for a while but no one knew that they were on such a low budget until today. News has broke that the Perseverance Mars rover is running on the same processor as a 1998 iMac. That’s right, the SUV sized rover that parachuted down to Mars at super sonic speeds, sent back beautiful mars landscapes, and taken boring audio for the first time on another planet would probably freeze up if we turned up the graphics too high on Civ V.
“After finishing up the rocket and all the fuel calculations, the program was really running out of money when we got to the rover design,” one NASA engineer reported. “That’s when we really started cutting corners on anything we could. Unfortunately most of the special wheels, chassis, and mechanisms had to be special designed. We thought, maybe we can cheap out with a used digital camera, but it turns out only certain sensors could work on Mars and the media department wanted really nice pictures. We could only cut cost on the processor.”
That’s when the engineers solved for the absolute minimum processing power and determined they could do the job with a PowerPC 750, single-core, 233MHz processor. Because of the slow bandwidth beaming data back and forth with earth and many of the imbedded sensor chips doing a lot of the work, they surprisingly didn’t need that much power to operate the vehicle.
After a quick search on Craigslist the acquisition team found a 1998 iMac which had the processor they were looking for. A local teen by the name of Jeffrey Palmer was willing to part with the laptop after he found it in his father’s attic and wanted to sell the brick for 100$ so he can afford more fortnight skins. “I wasn’t able to do anything with it, the plugs didn’t work with anything and it didn’t even turn on. Probably just the power supply. I just hope there aren’t any bit coins on there.” Jeffrey told reporters.
Luckily for the NASA engineers, they only needed the processor for the rover. Only spending 100$, the team avoided 10x that cost on a typical government computer acquisition process. After extracting the processor from the 90s relic and blowing the dust off, the engineering team got to work coding up Perseverance’s life finding mission and all of the operations necessary to complete the extra terrestrial mission.
When designing something for outer space, electronics have to be hardened against radiation. If a chip is not hardened, it will be fried outside of the protection of earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field. How much did they spend hardening that iMac processor? The team blew their budget by spending over 200k. This is where being frugal really cost them.
As all mac users know, buying adaptors, extra services, and various add ons can get pricy. It turns out, there isn’t a more expensive deal than getting multi-year apple care on a 20 year old processor which covers Mars and all the required hardware. Tim Cook had to be notified himself because NASA caused so much of a fuss when the apple store priced the hardening, required adaptors, and apple care insurance at a total of 200k. Leave it to apple to design a processor in the 90s that can run the most elaborate mars rover but bankrupt a government funded program. Maybe next time they’ll stick to intel.
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