PlayStation-Powered Pluto Probe Comes Out of Hibernation

PlayStation-Powered Pluto Probe Comes Out of Hibernation

NASA New Horizon Probe 310x

The New Horizon spacecraft wakes up more than seven years after launch.

Another of NASA's long term planetary exploration projects is coming back online, as the agency's New Horizon spacecraft has awoken from its third and final hibernation cycle.

And what's powering the systems on-board New Horizon? It's the same CPU that powered the Sony PlayStation you bought way back in 1994-95.

The same base CPU -- a MIPS R3000 model -- that powered Sony's first console is also controlling thrusters, guidance, and other systems in a NASA probe. America's finest didn't just tear this out of a PSX with a broken controller port, however, as there are some differences. While the PSX uses a 33 MHz R3051 CPU, New Horizon uses a 12 MHz Mongoose-V CPU. The Mongoose-V, according to MIPS owner Imagination, is a "...radiation-hardened version of the MIPS R3000 CPU," built by Florida-based aeronautics contractor Synova.

Console tech aside? New Horizon's long-term mission is to study Pluto, its moons (Charon, Hydra, Kerberos, Nix, and Styx), and other bodies found in the Kuiper belt. After launching in 2006, and doing a close fly-by of Jupiter in 2007, New Horizon has been in various stages of hibernation, until waking up earlier this week.

NASA isn't in the business of designing its own CPUs, which is why re-purposed hardware is usually found in its spacecrafts. NASA's forthcoming Orion spacecraft uses several of the same IBM CPU model that's found in Apple's iBook G3, while SpaceX has Nvidia Tegra chips on board the Dragon V2.

There's no official confirmation on if NASA included playable copies of Crash Bandicoot and Final Fantasy VII on New Horizon, in case the probe is found by bored, game-less alien life.

New Horizon isn't the only NASA probe exploring the far corners of our solar system. The Dawn spacecraft, which is set to explore the dwarf planet Ceres, should reach its destination before the start of Spring.

Source: Imagination Technologies

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Just goes to show how much you can do with relatively little processing power.

Then again, modern games think nothing of calculating the trajectory of hundreds, if not thousands of objects all subject to various forces and the like, so maybe a navigating a single spacecraft isn't that challenging in terms of processing power. (Although doing anything with sensor data is another matter entirely)

Given it has the same family of CPU as a PS1, (and at only 1/3 the clock speed), it does make you wonder... Also that it was launched in 2006...

More than 10 years after the PS1, and several years after the PS2... My only thoughts here would be clearly reliability is the primary requirement, rather than raw processing power.

Still, it's a strange thought, isn't it?

(Meanwhile, Nasa at some point bought up the entire remaining stock of 8086 chips for the space shuttle. Though at least that qualifies as 'state of the art computers' based on when the shuttle was originally designed. XD)

I was always impressed by the actual age of the "new" computers we had in the Navy. Civilian stuff is so much better.

CrystalShadow:
Just goes to show how much you can do with relatively little processing power.

Then again, modern games think nothing of calculating the trajectory of hundreds, if not thousands of objects all subject to various forces and the like, so maybe a navigating a single spacecraft isn't that challenging in terms of processing power. (Although doing anything with sensor data is another matter entirely)

Given it has the same family of CPU as a PS1, (and at only 1/3 the clock speed), it does make you wonder... Also that it was launched in 2006...

More than 10 years after the PS1, and several years after the PS2... My only thoughts here would be clearly reliability is the primary requirement, rather than raw processing power.

Still, it's a strange thought, isn't it?

(Meanwhile, Nasa at some point bought up the entire remaining stock of 8086 chips for the space shuttle. Though at least that qualifies as 'state of the art computers' based on when the shuttle was originally designed. XD)

You have to remember, they plan, design, and build probes with whats available and proven. Then test it for years before they actually launch it. 10 year old tech at launch is very reasonable.

I'm waiting for when the Raspberry Pi is running space probes.

newwiseman:
I was always impressed by the actual age of the "new" computers we had in the Navy. Civilian stuff is so much better.

Although that makes me feel kinda bad. I have invested quite a lot of money into my PC and its rather powerful. Not to boast or anything but when I consider I mostly use it to play games I feel kinda bad. This machine can perform billions of calculations per second without nary a care and I use it as a "toy". Of course this is a sign of our times, not fifty years ago the suff we do now was impossible. Puts things in perspective.

I also share CrystalShadow's sentiment, its fascinating how we could do so much with so little.

If you want it to sound more impressive, this is what was in the SGI IRIS workstations. Or maybe nobody remembers those.

CrystalShadow:
Just goes to show how much you can do with relatively little processing power.

The narrower a computer's job will be, the more work you can do with the hardware available. The wider its job will be, the more overengineering ultimately goes into it. That's why a 33 Mhz PC could never match the graphics of the Playstation 1 (of course 33 mhz was beyond slow when it came out). But, if you had a Playstation that only had to run a single game and never had to accept new software, it could be optimized down to even lower hardware (especially if you keep optimizing past the point that where you've spent more optimizing the device then it's even worth). New Horizons has a fixed set of functions and plenty of time to play catch up (when it flew past Jupiter, it spent weeks sending stored data and pictures back to Earth), so it really doesn't need much processing power.

Hevach:

CrystalShadow:
Just goes to show how much you can do with relatively little processing power.

The narrower a computer's job will be, the more work you can do with the hardware available. The wider its job will be, the more overengineering ultimately goes into it. That's why a 33 Mhz PC could never match the graphics of the Playstation 1 (of course 33 mhz was beyond slow when it came out). But, if you had a Playstation that only had to run a single game and never had to accept new software, it could be optimized down to even lower hardware (especially if you keep optimizing past the point that where you've spent more optimizing the device then it's even worth). New Horizons has a fixed set of functions and plenty of time to play catch up (when it flew past Jupiter, it spent weeks sending stored data and pictures back to Earth), so it really doesn't need much processing power.

You are correct, up to a point, though it has as much to do with software optimisation as it does with hardware. A large part of why consoles outperform PC's of similar specifications is down to how the software is designed, rather than the hardware.
(Of course, in 1995 you had the complicating factor that the PS1 - and later N64 had dedicated 3d graphics hardware, while PC's of the time did not - an SVGA card can deal with higher resolutions than the consoles ran at, but it was strictly 2d hardware, and you would be lucky if it even contained any usable hardware acceleration for 2d graphics routines, let alone 3d graphics)

Optimising the hardware can be done, if you are inclined to, but that usually takes a different form than using a recognisable CPU from a known family. (You find such things as dedicated signal processing chips, FPGA devices, and so on which often end up being part of very specialised hardware, none of which is identifiable from mentioning the 'cpu' in a system.)

Later consoles show the degree that software optimisation can help. Especially the original x-box, which, as several hackers have demonstrated is basically a low-end PC, and if you can hack the firmware, can even be used as such. (There are known windows installations on some of the hacked xboxes for instance).
Even so, the xbox in most cases outperforms PC's of near identical specifications when running games, not through special hardware, but through software optimisation alone...

CrystalShadow:
*SNIP*

More than 10 years after the PS1, and several years after the PS2... My only thoughts here would be clearly reliability is the primary requirement, rather than raw processing power.

Still, it's a strange thought, isn't it?

(Meanwhile, Nasa at some point bought up the entire remaining stock of 8086 chips for the space shuttle. Though at least that qualifies as 'state of the art computers' based on when the shuttle was originally designed. XD)

There's reliability but also power requirements. You can bet that 12mhz CPU would chew far less than a PS2 let alone modern processors. Very important when you run off a limited power supply (usually a battery that is never recharged.)

I guess it's not something I had thought of before, but with no air it must be a bitch to keep everything cool, no wonder the ultra-low clock speed. I know that they often use something like liquid helium when they need to keep parts of satellites and stuff cool, but when there's something generating heat actually inside the probe there's only so far that will help before you've got to get rid of the heat by radiation anyway.

Oh yes. That's what we need. For aliens to think we're all kawaii before they actually find out we're all kawaii. :) Great article.

And yet it was launched in 2006... were they strapped for the few hundred dollars a newer cpu might cost or had it already been built and tested for a decade at that point?

Lightknight:
And yet it was launched in 2006... were they strapped for the few hundred dollars a newer cpu might cost or had it already been built and tested for a decade at that point?

Well, the testing and robustness bit is one thing. The CPU had been in use for about 6 years at that point, which makes it a decent bet to survive the journey to the edge of our solar system, especially with the backup CPU.
Another is that it's not really necessary to put a 3 GHz quad core into the probe, since it just doesn't need it. This allows the probe to work with less power, which is a real issue at the end of our solar system. Since solar panels are not a thing you can really use, you have to rely on RTGs, which have an output of at most 200ish Watts.

Alexander Kirby:
I guess it's not something I had thought of before, but with no air it must be a bitch to keep everything cool, no wonder the ultra-low clock speed. I know that they often use something like liquid helium when they need to keep parts of satellites and stuff cool, but when there's something generating heat actually inside the probe there's only so far that will help before you've got to get rid of the heat by radiation anyway.

Actually, in this kind of orbit, it's insulated to keep the equipment in the probe warm enough to keep on functioning. Passive heat radiation outwards is much larger than the uptake of heat when you're this far from the sun.

So a Playstation powered probe that does not have a single component same as the plastation is playstation powered how? a similar processor family does not count. if it did then it meant that consoles and phones are same thing (since consoles use mobile APUs this generation).

newwiseman:

I'm waiting for when the Raspberry Pi is running space probes.

Unlikely, because while popular, its hardly cheapest or best option for eternal controller. Its good for off the shelf media controller or something like that, but if you want to tinker you can get far cheaper and more reliable ones running on android (so basically will run anything linux).

RicoADF:

There's reliability but also power requirements. You can bet that 12mhz CPU would chew far less than a PS2 let alone modern processors. Very important when you run off a limited power supply (usually a battery that is never recharged.)

Not necessarely true. for example a I7 8thread processor overclocked at 4ghz will use LESS power than an Athlon XP with single core running at 1.4ghz. Why? because of smaller form factor which leads to less power wasted as heat.

Strazdas:

Not necessarely true. for example a I7 8thread processor overclocked at 4ghz will use LESS power than an Athlon XP with single core running at 1.4ghz. Why? because of smaller form factor which leads to less power wasted as heat.

True, but then you run into reliability, it's a balance of both. Also cost is a major factor and how easy it is to shield from the elements - an unprotected computer would be fried when the first solar flare hit it and their common. Simple designs have proven to be the best in space.

RicoADF:

Strazdas:

Not necessarely true. for example a I7 8thread processor overclocked at 4ghz will use LESS power than an Athlon XP with single core running at 1.4ghz. Why? because of smaller form factor which leads to less power wasted as heat.

True, but then you run into reliability, it's a balance of both. Also cost is a major factor and how easy it is to shield from the elements - an unprotected computer would be fried when the first solar flare hit it and their common. Simple designs have proven to be the best in space.

Sure, i agree that all of those are a major factors. I just wanted to point out that a more powerful processor does not necessarily require more power. Though when it comes to Nasa Probes, i dont think a few hundred dollars more costly CPU is a significant factor in probe costs.

 

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