Ghost in the Martian
Save the Moon landings, Mars Science Lab aka Curiosity is NASA’s crowning technical achievement. The complexity of its entry, descent and landing (EDL), the rugged capability of its large and flexible design, and high ingenuity of its instrumentation; all come together as a complete package for deep exploration of the Sun’s 4th planet. Mars is no longer such a distant frontier thanks to missions like this one.
With hardware that goes to other worlds, there come design challenges such as having to radiation-harden the computer. Since it currently takes many years to plan and build a robotic space probe, the processor and memory specs are well behind the cutting edge back here on Earth. MSL RCE (rover compute element) is equipped with two twin computers (1 as backup): 200MHz single-core processor, 256mb RAM, 2gb flash. The top data transfer rate between Earth and the rover via Mars reconnaissance orbiter (MRO) is 2mbits per second. All quite modest but still damn impressive given Mariner 4 returned a total of 634kb which included 22 images back in 1965.
The Mini Cooper-sized vehicle runs on a plutonium-powered generator that puts out 125 watts – for comparison, a mid-range computer power supply from your local hardware store will channel 5 times that!
Given that computational power and raw electricity are limited, the focus then becomes how you use it. The MSL software team writes and uploads new programs on a sol by sol basis, so the rover is not exactly autonomous – other than its hazard-avoidance capability. It faithfully goes exactly where Earth tells it and carries out precise instructions for imaging, surveying, sampling and so on. Given the one way time delay between Earth and Mars ranges from 4 to 22 minutes, controlling Curiosity presumably consists of sending over long, linear instructions.
As a software development outfit, Noo Corp has tasked itself with squeezing hidden potential out of typical computing hardware by emulating qubits. We recognize that the great challenges of modern computer science are relatively simple problems for quantum hardware. Therefore, writing classical code that takes efficient advantage of quantum math is the answer to many tough and important questions. Such questions include, ‘can Curiosity independently carry out advanced science with only general instructions from Earth?’ In other words, can software alone turbo boost the rover’s intelligence, and thereby transform her into a full blown scientist – not just a lowly researcher? 😉
We argue, ‘yes’.