The MSL has cameras a plenty, it has a laser that can zap rocks (or aliens?), it has a robotic arm that could possibly throw the first pitch of the first baseball game ever played on a planet other than Earth, and it has 10lbs of plutonium,  but it has no windows!


Microsoft may rule the terrestrial world but they score a big fat zero in space. NASA needs reliability in its software, programs and operating systems need to be fault tolerant and resilient. That is ‘geek speak’ for reliable! You can not easily hit the ‘reboot’ button on a computer that is millions of miles away. NASA also doesn’t want to interrupt its mission with the deadly ‘Patch Tuesday’, a monthly event that us mere mortals live in fear and dread of.

The software operating system of choice by NASA is VxWorks. It is not an OS that many people have heard of, yet it is an OS that is in common use, if you know where to look. By my count I have three copies of VxWorks sitting on my desk. A DSL Modem, and two Routers. VxWorks may well be in your TV and car as well. It is an embedded OS that just works. You give it a task and years later, it is still doing it.

Space exploration is a little more complex than running your average large screen TV, but VxWorks is up to the task. The company behind VxWorks is Wind River, they have been working on VxWorks for 27 years. But don’t be fooled into thinking that it is old and tired. It is in a constant state of evolution. So we have an interesting situation, an Operating System that few people have ever heard of (because it just keeps working), and a company Wind River that that even fewer people have ever heard of. But do not be fooled, Wind River is at the very cutting edge of software technology. In 2009 they became a subsidiary of chip giant Intel. At the time I had qualms about this almost $1 billion acquisition, did it signal the end of an excellent company? The answer is no!

Wind River continues to amaze. Curiosity is proof of that. NASA talked about the ‘7 minutes of terror’ as Curiosity entered the Martian atmosphere and had to perform a ‘space ballet’ involving parachutes, explosives, rockets, and ropes. Well at the heart of the dance was Wind River.

So, what hardware is VxWorks running on? Well it is not a multicore Intel I7, or whatever the latest and greatest Intel processor might be. Space is a hard taskmaster, a CPU needs to be able to deal with situations that you do not tend to encounter in your home, extreme temperature changes and radiation. As a test you might try putting your smart phone in the freezer overnight and then warm it up on high for 2 minutes in the microwave! A word of warning, check your warranty before doing this experiment!   Most instruction books have warnings about freezers and microwave ovens!

Curiosity however must face this problem on a daily basis. The average computer could not take the punishment. You won’t find a Dell or HP laptop on Curiosity. Extremetech explains:

At the heart of Curiosity there is, of course, a computer. In this case the Mars rover is powered by a RAD750, a single-board computer (motherboard, RAM, ROM, and CPU) produced by BAE. The RAD750 has been on the market for more than 10 years, and it’s currently one of the most popular on-board computers for spacecraft. In Curiosity’s case, the CPU is a PowerPC 750 (PowerPC G3 in Mac nomenclature) clocked at around 200MHz — which might seem slow, but it’s still hundreds of times faster than, say, the Apollo Guidance Computer used in the first Moon landings. Also on the motherboard are 256MB of DRAM, and 2GB of flash storage — which will be used to store video and scientific data before transmission to Earth.

It sounds old and boring. But it is important to understand the needs are far different on Mars than they are on Earth. Curiosity does not need to play World Of Warcraft, it doesn’t need Facebook, and it doesn’t need Twitter!

I am impressed with all of the people that came together to make Curiosity a reality, NASA knows how to pick the best partners! Wind River are just one aspect of that. It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a whole damn city to plant an SUV on Mars!

I can’t claim to be part of NASA, but I can claim the rights to know one of the software wizards behind VxWorks. Keep tuned, if it all works the way it should, we will be talking on the radio later this week.

Simon Barrett

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