It never ceases to amaze us that what is essentially a species of really successful primates is able to launch a rocket into space, have it travel around 350 million miles and land on Mars, pretty much right where it wants it. The logistics, engineering, science and all around awesomeness required to do this is just mind boggling. Even more amazing is that the descent of this rover on an otherworldly land is then captured in images by a satellite this same species of primates placed there a few years prior! The above picture, in case you haven’t seen it yet, is just that: NASA’s Curiosity rover descending towards Mars’ surface as captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been orbiting the red planet since 2006.
The touchdown, as you surely know, was flawless; news of this has been pretty hard to miss. But there are two (pretty geeky) factoids about the mission you may not have heard in the media yet: what’s Curiosity’s brain and what does it have to do with Apple, and what’s the image file type it’s transmitting in? For the answer to these questions, hit the jump.
It turns out that the processor running everything in the rover is
a RAD750 radiation-hardened single board computer.
This computer, in turn, is based on the IBM PowerPC 750 CPU, which Intel first introduced on November 10, 1997. This CPU was used by Apple in many computers in the late 1990s, including the original iMac.
As one Redditor puts it, “Curiosity is essentially a 2-CPU Power Macintosh G3 with some nifty peripherals and one HELL of a UPS.”
As for the file type used in the images, it turns out it’s a custom solution. Boingboing was at the post-landing press conference and asked the following: “Given the great distance and technical challenges involved in transmitting timely data back from Mars, what file type and image compression algorithm(s) did they use for those first “rush” thumbnails? There’s a 14 minute delay involved for any signals from Mars to Earth.” And here’s the answer they got:
“JPL imaging specialist Justin Maki, tells Boing Boing:
The images are wavelet-compressed, much like JPEG 2000. The main difference is that the algorithm used on MSL (and MER) use is computationally less complex than JPEG-2000.
The compression software was written at JPL by Aaron Kiely and Matt Klimesh.
Matt tells Boing Boing:
I don’t have much to add beyond Justin’s answer. It is a custom file format and the compression algorithm is in many ways similar to the algorithm for JPEG-2000 compression, but with lower computational complexity.
No name for the format (and I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as proprietary), but we call the compressor “ICER” (not an acronym, just a rearrangement of the letters of “Rice”; the Rice algorithm is a data compression algorithm first used decades ago).
So there you have it. Of course you didn’t hear about these because they’re relatively unimportant things to know, but we think it’s an exciting time to be a geeky, successful primate and these kinds of details get us perked up.