Well, it’s finally happened. We made it to Pluto.
The most distant of the classical planets, Pluto was demoted to level of ‘dwarf planet’ by the International Astronomical Union back in 2006, but that minor setback did nothing to quell public enthusiasm for the little-planet-that-could. Unfortunately, Pluto’s unusual orbit prevented it from being able to be visited by either of the Voyager probes back in 1989, so while we have been privy to detailed photographs and tantalizing scientific data from every other member of our solar system, from Mercury through Neptune, Pluto has always been for us little more than a dot against a background of stars.
That is, until July, 2015, when the NASA New Horizons probe completed its decade-long journey and finally visited Pluto. Better late than never, right?
New Horizons captured massive amounts of data, and gave scientists and armchair planetologists quite a bit to think about. However, in our excitement to finally put a ‘face’ with Pluto’s name, let’s not forget the probe that made it all possible. The New Horizons probe is an advanced collection of computer circuitry, designed to operate in the dead of interplanetary space without any support other than the signals beamed to it across 4.67 billion miles of empty vacuum. And while the hardware that makes up the probe is impressive, the applications and programs that were used to help get it to the outer fringes of our solar system are no-less amazing. Let’s take a moment and look at several apps that helped us finally catch a glimpse of our most camera-shy solar neighbor.
- SPICE Toolkit
Space is a funny place. For one thing, without a strong gravitational influence (such as we feel pulling us downward when we are standing on the surface of the Earth), it can be really difficult to determine direction, orientation, or even momentum. New Horizons uses a version of a tried-and-true NASA program collection, known as the SPICE Toolkit. These apps make it possible for the probe and its handlers to know where the spacecraft is located in relation to its point of origin and its destination. The SPICE Toolkit also allows scientists to keep track of onboard instrument orientation, and any events onboard the spacecraft that might affect the probe’s ability to do its job.
- Nucleus RTOS (variation)
In order for the probe’s CPU to be able to function in the way it is designed to, the Command and Data Handling system is based upon the widely-used Nucleus Real Time Operating System, which is estimated as being part of approximately 2.11 billion devices worldwide. Nucleus is scaleable, and as such can fulfill a number of functions beyond command and data handling. Everything from defibrillators and other medical equipment, to personal phones, to advanced surveillance systems, all have the potential to be operated using the Nucleus RTOS. That’s right, the same cameras that provide your office with business security, might just share a program or two with the probe that finally snapped a shot of Pluto.
- REX Although the New Horizons probe may be small, it carries with it parts and programs from many different locations. Take REX, for example. REX stands for Radio Science Experiment, and is a device and set of programs developed at Stanford University. REX uses radio transmissions from Earth to help determine Pluto’s atmospheric composition, temperature, and pressure. It does this by measuring the amount of atmospheric interference in the incoming radio waves. REX is used to gather so much data, that it will actually be an entire year before the whole dataset is downloaded.
- Playstation processor This one is actually hardware, not software, but it’s interesting enough that we’re going to mention it anyway. When New Horizons was launched back in 2006, it needed a CPU that could stand the strain of interplanetary travel and solar radiation. So what did they go with? Well, if you read the section heading, you already know. The Playstation video game console, first released in 1994, is now over twenty years old, and was already outdated back when the probe was being designed. However, the probe’s creators weren’t interesting in finding the newest and most powerful CPU available; they wanted something reliable. So, they created a radiation-hardened, specially-designed version of the Playstation CPU, and sent it off on a journey into the unknown. It will continue its journey outward, until many thousands of years from now it eventually encounters other stars, and perhaps even other worlds. By then, humanity itself may be long gone, but the Playstation CPU housed inside our ambassador to the stars will continue on its mission, until time itself ceases to exist.
Hmm. Not a bad destiny for something that was designed to play Tomb Raider and Crash Bandicoot.
Lee Ying has over 10 years experience in the tech and security industry. He currently writes for various websites, if you would like to contact him you can find him on LinkedIn: . Follow me on Twitter @LeeYing101