June 30, 1997 5:55 PM PDT

SGI, Kodak help explore Mars

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IBM box to manage Mars mission

June 4, 1997
Silicon Graphics and Kodak are providing the technology to drive a high-tech microrover that will traverse the surface of Mars on a mission for NASA.

Launched December 4, 1996, the NASA Pathfinder craft will reach the Martian surface Friday. The microrover will be operated for 7 Martian days, while data will be gathered for an additional 23. Each day on Mars lasts 24.6 hours.

Pathfinder is NASA's first landing on Mars in almost 20 years. It is the first time the agency has deployed a vehicle capable of exploring the planet's surface.

A Silicon Graphics visualization supercomputer will manage all the processing and control functions required to maneuver the microrover. The microrover will see the planet's surface through "eyes" provided by the Kodak.

The SGI Onyx2 supercomputer and an SGI "Octane" workstation will receive and process images and data from the unmanned probe and handle the immense amounts of information being relayed from Mars as scientists guide the rover over the planet's surface.

SGI systems will also be used to create the composite images built from the data for visualization purposes, as well as allow Internet users to watch the mission on the agency's Web site. There, users will be able to follow the mission, interact with data from the project, and pilot a simulated microrover through a 3D environment.

The applications parallel SGI's lead role in the high-end graphics market and its continued pursuit of the Web server business as well.

As the microrover Sojourner crosses the planet's surface, it will be employing the same kind of imaging technology used in digital still cameras and video camcorders to allow scientists to "see" the terrain ahead. Visual feedback will be one of the microrover's main functions as it explores the surface of Mars.

As reported earlier this month by CNET's NEWS.COM, IBM will be along for the ride as well, with one of its 32-bit RS/6000 computers making the descent to Mars, guiding the spacecraft through the atmosphere. The system will then be used to guide the rover Sojourner through an ancient valley called Ares Vallis.

NASA used the IBM system as a cost-cutting measure, saving money by using a pre-existing design. But the system isn't your usual desktop unit.

It contains a radiation-hardened version PowerPC processor. The chip's 35 million instruction per second speed gave it the highest throughput rate of any space bound computer so far. The processor is also designed to operate from minus 55 degrees Celsius to 70 degrees Celsius.

The Pathfinder mission is the second launch in the Discovery program, NASA's series of planetary missions. The Mars Pathfinder missions is being run by Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

 

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