As unlikely as it may sound, a Playstation CPU powers NASA’s probe headed to Pluto. Yesterday, the New Horizon Probe has reached Pluto’s orbit and the processor coordinated the taking and relaying of pictures back to Earth. Some may think the choice to use this technology is due to NASA’s recently tighter budget, but this is quite far from the truth.
The New Horizon craft has left Earth nine years ago, but even by then the original Playstation CPU was a decade old piece of hardware. NASA did alter it in order to make it resilient to the hardships of space travel (such as radiation), but the processor is still very much alike the MIPS R3000 that run many of our childhood video games.
The decision to use it had more considerations. Even though it was not conceived for space travel, the processor had been tried and tested since 1994. This gave it an advantage over newer, but unpredictable hardware. Considering the length and duration of the mission, NASA needed something highly reliable before anything else.
Though powered from a nuclear source, the spacecraft still has quite limited fuel reserves, which are mostly directed towards vital mechanical tasks, leaving little room for an energy demanding CPU. Money also probably factored into the choice.
The processor was used for tasks such as handling the thrusters and maintaining the sensors. It works on its one to guide the probe, with only a copy of itself as a backup system. NASA has a history of using slightly older technology in their space missions, especially those farther away from our planet.
The New Horizon has arrived on Pluto 3 minutes earlier than it was officially scheduled, a sounding success for NASA. It will continue to take pictures of Pluto for a while, afterwards moving to monitor its moons.
But we may not have seen the last of the MIPS R3000, as depending on the upcoming performance of the probe it may be assigned another mission. The New Horizon may leave the vicinity of Pluto in order to head for the Kipar Belt, a gigantic ring of asteroids found at the very border of our Solar system.
Pluto was first discovered 85 years ago by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, whose ashes are now actually interred in the spacecraft itself. His remains may now reach even further than his discovery.
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