NASA takes a Sony PlayStation to Pluto

Pluto flyby has our Automologist, MAC, in awe, as well as evoked some of his childhood memories.

When I was a kid, we used to say that the most dangerous thing known to mankind was my mother with a map! On childhood excursions, we would always make sure to stow a packed lunch as she could easily get us to Scotland when we were heading to France, which from where we lived was in the opposite direction. Maps still seem to be beyond so many of us. I have friends who get lost following directions from Google Maps on their smartphone. But worse still for some of us, even programming an alarm clock seems to be beyond us.

Now, assuming that you do not live under a rock, you will have noticed over the past few days there has been a stream of good news coming from NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft as it continues on its mission to boldly go where no spacecraft has gone before – well, at least no terrestrial craft, that is – and send us the first close-up pictures of what was once considered the furthest planet in our solar system, Pluto.

Forget the fact that Pluto is a mere 7.5 billion kilometres from earth and the trip has taken some 9 years (hope they packed some sandwiches). What absolutely amazes me about the entire programme is the fact that the 700 million dollar mission to study Pluto up close is being powered by the same computer chips that brought you the original Sony PlayStation some 20 years ago.

Yup, the New Horizon is powered by a 32bit Mongoose-V processor running at just 12MHz, enough to handle Tomb Raider and evidently sufficient to reach and explore the far reaches of the solar system as well – I’m just glad my Mum didn’t programme the directions. Actually there are two computer systems – one running guidance and one to handle data, so, in a way, two PlayStations but still an amazing feat.

“The Mongoose-V processor analyses positional information, distributes operating commands to multiple spacecraft subsystems, collects and processes instrument data, and sends bursts of data back to Earth,” a NASA spokesperson was credited with saying. “It also runs an advanced autonomy algorithm that allows the probe to auto-correct any issues or contact operators on Earth for help.” Of course it does…

When you consider that the New Horizons probe left the Earth way back in 2006 and has just reached its destination powered by basically a PlayStation, it is hard not to be impressed by the clever folks over at NASA, and it is obviously why NASA is known to be probably the most advanced engineering organisation in the world.

As an aside, packed on board the New Horizon is some of the ashes of the man who discovered Pluto some 85 years ago, Clyde Tombaugh, a Kansas native who grew up on a farm. The canister that contains some of his ashes bears an inscription from Alan Stern, the Head of the New Horizons mission: “Interned herein are remains of American Clyde W. Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto and the solar system’s “third zone”. Adelle and Muron’s boy, Patricia’s husband, Annette and Alden’s father, astronomer, teacher, punster, and friend: Clyde W. Tombaugh (1906-1997).”

Clyde Tombaugh, 1906-1997
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