There’s power on Mars


My brother wanted to be a train driver when he grew up, but I, I always wanted to be Spock. Always. The India of my childhood was a very different world; slow-moving, self-contained and insular. Everything would shut down by eight or nine in the evening, there were no coffee shops or malls and thanks to Sanjay Dutt, the mullet was in fashion. We had one state owned channel and the hit shows included a dubbed detective show from East German TV, a weekly countdown of the Top Bollywood songs and re-runs of the original Star Trek series. No wonder really, that in such a slow moving world, this show gained a cult following among all us boys. The prospects of space travel, ‘going where no man had gone before’ had an enormous pull on us, so much so that I didn’t want to be a doctor or an engineer when I grew up.

That by the way, is what all self-respecting boys from good families would aspire to back in the day. Explore distant galaxies? Discover new star systems? Perish the thought, quit daydreaming and get back to work! Sometimes good old fashioned remedies work much better than these new-fangled medicines or therapy. A well aimed thump to the back of the head accompanied by some harsh words and we would be back to our studies, spirits and motivation restored.

Somewhere however, the fantasy remained. As a kid I spent countless hours trying to curl my ears and make them point upwards like a Vulcan’s. Regrettably, that didn’t happen but the fascination never went away. These days, I sit in a cubicle and spend my days poring over excel sheets and pipeline acceleration system reports. I don’t get to explore the vastness of space. Instead, I am lost among the minutiae of various tracking reports. I do Social Media Marketing for IBM’s Power Systems and while social media as a field is quite cool, it’s nowhere as rocking as Spock’s career on the USS Enterprise.

Recently, I heard some news that breathed new life into all my dreams of space. Did you hear the news about NASA’s Curiosity Rover being the first robot to drill into the Martian surface and recover samples? In its quest to understand the geological history of Mars and determine how hospitable the region was to life in ancient times, the Curiosity Rover is equipped with a laser zapper, a hammering drill, 17 cameras as well as an onboard laboratory and other scientific instruments. All of this is powered by a RAD750, a single-board computer (motherboard, RAM, ROM, and CPU) produced by BAE and the PowerPC750 core is at the heart of the one-ton craft’s flight computer. That’s right, the CPU running the Curiosity Rover is based on Power architecture. Power Systems is on Mars!

It was this CPU and the RAD750 computer that controlled the flight of the Curiosity over more than 150 million miles in outer space. On entering the atmosphere of Mars it had to decelerate the ship from 13,000 mph to two mph, fire the rockets and deploy the sky crane that gently lowered the one-ton Curiosity to the surface. After this landing the flight computer was redundant. The Curiosity’s engineers then almost completely reprogrammed the computer and installed the Release 10 or the R10 software package that would control it’s autonomous driving system and all the tools on its robotic arm.

In other words the mind that controlled the robotic arm and drill that recovered those samples last week was based on Power Systems architecture. The PowerPC750 (PowerPC G3 in Mac nomenclature) is clocked at around 200MHz and has far less horsepower than other commercial Power Systems available on the market today. However, it’s a favorite of NASA space missions mainly due to its ruggedness and durability- like all Power architecture. It was engineered to be virtually impervious to high-energy cosmic rays that would quickly cripple others. It can withstand massive doses of radiation as well as temperature fluctuations from 1,400 degrees Kelvin to minus two degrees.

The brand that I work for has gone boldly where no chip has gone before. As I sit here and pore over some excel sheets, I feel like I too have contributed. Just like all those anonymous young officers on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise-those guys in the red uniforms who would be the first to be zapped by death rays or sucked into a space time vortex when facing unknown alien forces. You never really registered their name, did you? But they were there in the background doing their bit, keeping the energy field up, manning the phaser cannons, keeping the engines humming or setting a course for Vela or Talos systems. Just like me poring over the pipeline acceleration reports.

Rahul Mitra is working on Social Media Marketing for IBM Power Systems and manages the Power Systems social media handles. You can connect with Power Systems on Twitter: @IBMPowerSystems.

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