Why Trusted Tech Is Better Than Cutting Edge (Particularly In Space)

The temptation to use the latest and greatest technology for maximum performance can be powerful, but there are good reasons to opt for a tried-and-tested solution instead. Like NASA did, throwing an original Playstation CPU inside the New Horizons Space probe that is currently beaming pictures of Pluto back to earth.

The MIPS R3000 CPU that was the heart of the Playstation back in the '90s is also the brains behind the New Horizons probe, and that's quite deliberate, with NASA opting for a well-known CPU -- albeit one that they've undoubtedly tweaked a little to keep it safe from the rigours of space travel -- back in 2006. Even then, this chip was really showing its age; the original PlayStation debuted in 1994.

So why go for something old? In a word, reliability. That's the classic ballet between deploying newer and faster gear in the hopes for a productivity boost versus taking on board something a little slower and less efficient in return for a more reliable performance. Sometimes, less is more.

The CPU from the original PlayStation is guiding a probe to Pluto [The Verge]


    But it's not a MIPS R3000! It's a Mongoose-V, which is a MIPS R3000 derived CPU that's designed to run at a slower clock speed and is radiation hardened.

    And it's more than just reliability. The thing's powered using nuclear fuel, and the plutonium in it decays by 5% every 4 years. Right now it can only produce 200W. This isn't even enough power to run all the instruments, let alone a high-power CPU. Every watt is precious.

    Low power beats high performance in this instance.
    Does the radiation drop off as you get further out from the sun, or is the cosmic background pretty much constant?

      Cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) is extremely weak compared to stellar radiation from the sun and galactic cosmic radiation (GCR).

      The answer to your question isn't quite straight-forward though. Solar radiation isn't especially dangerous except when there are solar flares, but GCR is very dangerous. Up to about 95AU away from the sun, the solar wind acts as something of a protective zone, weakening GCR by as much as 90% and basically protecting the planets from its damaging effects. At 95AU, the solar wind drops below sonic speed and it doesn't have a protective effect any more.

      So the simplest answer is that as you travel away from the sun, radiation levels increase slowly because the inverse square law reduces solar wind intensity allowing more GCR through. Past 95AU radiation levels increase significantly.

        I agree! Actually, you lost me at "Cosmic microwave background radiation....."

          Cosmic microwave background radiation is the radiation left over from the Big Bang. It's very weak, but completely surrounds us in every direction.

    The other major factor that goes into the decision about what tech to use is heat dissipation. In the vacuum of space, there's no air to move heat away from electronics. As getting rid of excess heat is so difficult and because every watt of power is precious, most space agencies use ultra-low power consumption and efficient components.

Join the discussion!