A company might store, process, and transmit many gigabits—or even terabits—of data per week. Sometimes that data resides firmly in one building, or even goes rocketing down the fiber to an office halfway across the country or world.
But in many ways, that’s nothing compared to the data feat recently pulled off by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which in the past seven years has sent 200 terabits of scientific data all the way back to earth. That data largely comes from six instruments aboard the craft, and doesn’t include the information used to manage the equipment’s health.
That 200-terabit milestone also surpasses the ten years’ worth of data returned via NASA’s Deep Space Network from all other missions managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The sheer volume is impressive, but of course what’s most important is what we are learning about our neighboring planet,” JPL’s Rich Zurek, the project scientist for the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, wrote in a statement.
It takes roughly two hours for the craft to orbit Mars, recording voluminous amounts of data on everything from the atmosphere to the subsurface. Thanks to its instruments, we know that Mars is a dynamic environment, once home to water. “Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has shown that Mars is still an active planet, with changes such as new craters, avalanches and dust storms,” Zurek added. “Mars is a partially frozen world, but not frozen in time.”
While the Orbiter’s two-year “primary science phase” ended in 2008, NASA has granted the hardware three additional extensions, each of which has resulted in additional insight into the Red Planet’s secrets.
NASA’s Mars explorers can do a lot with a little: take the case of Mars Rover Curiosity, whose “brain” features 5 million lines of code—and less computing punch than the iPhone 5. “You’re carrying more processing power in your pocket than Curiosity,” Ben Cichy, chief flight software engineer, told an audience at this year’s MacWorld.
But the impressive part isn’t necessarily what these devices carry onboard: it’s how they can transmit data across a healthy length of the solar system to home.