Where the iPhone 5 Kicks the Mars Rover’s Butt

Giving the Mars Rover Curiosity the brains she needs to operate took 5 million lines of code. And while the Mars Science Laboratory team froze the code a year before the roaming laboratory landed on Aug. 5, they kept sending software updates to the spacecraft during its 253-day, 352 million-mile flight.

Mars Rover CuriosityThe rover’s mission is to gather and analyze the Martian landscape for signs of microscopic evidence that life may have once existed there. Right now, she’s preparing to drill her first holes into the Martian soil.

In its belly, Curiosity has two computers, a primary and a backup. Fun fact: Apple’s iPhone 5 has more processing power than this one-eyed explorer.

“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. Specifically:

  • Processors: Curiosity’s is 132MHz; the iPhone 5’s is 1.3 GHz.
  • Memory: Curiosity’s has 128 MB; the iPhone 5 has 1 GB.
  • Storage: Curiosity holds 4 GB; iPhone 5 holds 64 GB.
  • OS: Curiosity runs Wind River VxWorks 6.7 Real-time OS; the iPhone runs iOS 6.

And while NASA uses a Linux workstation to run Curiosity, it can compile the software using a MacBook Air. The notebook can easily port over applications because of the Unix infrastructure at its core, Cichy said.

How Fast Can You Program?

One of the team’s biggest challenges is having to script instructions for Curiosity within a 12- to 16-hour window. Each day, after the lander downloads the latest batch of data to the 100 scientists watching her movements, the team determines what they want her to do next and make sure that their goals align with Curiosity’s capabilities. Then the software team writes the necessary script and sends it off via uplink. Because of the roughly 14 minutes it takes for the instructions to reach Mars, all of this has to be done within the window, when Curiosity is sleeping.

“It’s a race against time to program within the uplink window,” says James Kurien, the team’s activity planning and sequencing software manager.

Too bad the iPhone doesn’t have a 352 million-mile range. The carriers would make a fortune off the data plan.

Image: NASA

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16 Responses to “Where the iPhone 5 Kicks the Mars Rover’s Butt”

  1. John Quincy

    Enjoyable article, but the author should give Curiosity its due. In the comparison section, I would add: “Can survive the harsh environment of space (radiation, vacuum, wide temperature swings etc): Curiosity: Yes, iPhone 5: No. “Hardware & software had been rigorously tested & verified: Curiosity: Yes, iPhone 5: No.”
    Space is an extremely hostile and demanding environment.Designing and building hardware for a space environment is greatly under appreciated. Designing software that provides the necessary functionality and robustness for space systems is also very difficult. Also, space systems must undergo rigorous test and verification far exceeding commercial endeavors.

    • Greg Smith

      Great points. Many of these “look how advanced product xyz is” pieces don’t consider all the technical requirements that are placed on military and space systems. Although I did work on an ISS project where we used off-the-shelf video boards, but they had to be customized after some components (mainly capacitors) failed in thermal-vacuum testing.

  2. John Corr

    How dumb the NASA guys must be! Why not place an IPhone on the rover and he would be 10x fast! Oh wait…the the iphone components would fail miserably after a few minutes in space. Neverming working for years without a single failure as required by any spacecraft.

  3. I do not think there is a genius bar on Mars ! The electronic equipment needs to be hardened for the extremes of temperature, G forces and high velocity particles in space which takes years of research and testing hence the low specs. Also the Mars Rover does not need a fancy GUI thus not needing all the memory and processor speed in a iPhone 5.

  4. I do not think there is a genius bar on Mars ! The electronic equipment needs to be hardened for the extremes of temperature, G forces and high velocity particles in space which takes years of research and testing hence the low specs. Also the Mars Rover does not need a fancy GUI thus not needing all the memory and processor speed in a iPhone 5.

  5. “Too bad the iPhone doesn’t have a 352 million-mile range. The carriers would make a fortune off the data plan.”

    Funfact #2: The telco industry charges more, kilobyte by kilobyte, for sending a text message from your phone to next door than what it costs to send the same message from Mars to Earth.

    http://falkvinge.net/2012/11/28/free-market-failure-telcos-charge-more-for-sending-a-text-next-door-than-cost-of-sending-data-from-mars/

  6. “Too bad the iPhone doesn’t have a 352 million-mile range. The carriers would make a fortune off the data plan.”

    Funfact #2: The telco industry charges more, kilobyte by kilobyte, for sending a text message from your phone to next door than what it costs to send the same message from Mars to Earth.

    http://falkvinge.net/2012/11/28/free-market-failure-telcos-charge-more-for-sending-a-text-next-door-than-cost-of-sending-data-from-mars/

  7. I realise this article was meant to dumb down the whole subject for people to understand and bring in the barista crowd to dice.com, but aren’t you trivialising the achievement of Curiosity a little too much?
    It’s an incredible feat of engineering. Building such a machine is nothing like an iPhone, and it certainly doesn’t require the general purpose computing that an iPhone has. Curiosity, for example, has a number of FPGAs on board, which in repetitive computational tasks would trounce the iPhone by orders of magnitude, and power requirement. On the subject of power, Curiosity is still running along happily – my iPhone doesn’t last the day. There are so very very many counter-points to the cheap shots in this article. I’d write a “Where the Mars Rover Kicks the iPhone 5’s Butt” article, but people would just laugh at me.

    Now that I’ve got that out of the way.. if Curiosity was powered by an iPhone then perhaps they would have released Angry Birds in Space sooner.

  8. I realise this article was meant to dumb down the whole subject for people to understand and bring in the barista crowd to dice.com, but aren’t you trivialising the achievement of Curiosity a little too much?
    It’s an incredible feat of engineering. Building such a machine is nothing like an iPhone, and it certainly doesn’t require the general purpose computing that an iPhone has. Curiosity, for example, has a number of FPGAs on board, which in repetitive computational tasks would trounce the iPhone by orders of magnitude, and power requirement. On the subject of power, Curiosity is still running along happily – my iPhone doesn’t last the day. There are so very very many counter-points to the cheap shots in this article. I’d write a “Where the Mars Rover Kicks the iPhone 5’s Butt” article, but people would just laugh at me.

    Now that I’ve got that out of the way.. if Curiosity was powered by an iPhone then perhaps they would have released Angry Birds in Space sooner.

  9. Offensively stupid article… Not sure if this is supposed to be some kind of high-level ironic/troll article mocking self-important Apple hipsters, but I kind of doubt it. The Rover and iPhone are different things. Only an idiot would think the iPhone is “better” just because it has a faster processor. Can the iPhone go to MARS???

    This was the first article I read on Dice and it will be the last. It’s insulting to people looking for jobs who might have actually passed CS101.