NASA computer upgrade means we can finally make that Venus trip
Are you getting bored with the same old Curiosity Rover holiday snaps coming in from Mars? Well good news, we may have some more variety soon: NASA has built a computer chip that should be able to survive on our closest neighbour, Venus, despite its unwelcoming 462°C average temperature.
Its been a while since we visited our closest neighbour – the last landers to try and get any information from Venus was 34 years ago in the form of the Soviet Union’s Venera 13 and 14. After some snaps and a brief bit of soil analysis, they lost contact: unable to deal with the surface pressure and extreme heat.
That shouldn’t be a problem from now on. Regular silicon found in our computer chips maxes out at around 250°C, but NASA has an alternative. Publishing their scientific paper in AIP Advances, the researchers explain that their chip – made from silicon carbide – was able to perform for over 21 days straight in NASA’s Glenn Extreme Environments Rig (GEER). GEER is the best way of simulating Venus’ atmosphere right here on Earth, and considering Venera 13 lasted just a two hours and seven minutes on Venus before dying, that’s a huge improvement.
That’s excellent news. Although Mars gets all the attention, because of a possible manned mission – something you certainly wouldn’t want to volunteer for on Venus – there’s plenty we can learn from our unwelcoming neighbour. As the paper says, “improved understanding of Venus and its greenhouse effect atmosphere and geology has relevance to a better understanding of the Earth and solar system formation.” Reports suggest a Venus landsail surface rover could be ready for prime time in as little as six years.
It’s good that we have more time to prepare, because although these silicon carbide chips could go on a mission tomorrow, you wouldn’t necessarily want them to. The proof-of-concept chips have just 24 transistors on them, meaning that they’re nowhere near advanced enough for the kind of analysis we’ve come to expect from our space agency. Over the 521 days of the experiment, the chip ran at a slow but steady 1.26Mhz. “We’re back to the very early 1970s on Moore’s law in terms of the complexity of the chip,” Philip Neudeck, an electronics engineer from NASA’s Glenn Research Centre told Gizmodo.
Six years is a long time to perfect the chips, and Neudeck already has a 100-transistor model in the works. And if push came to shove, it’s not like we haven’t worked with simple computer technology when exploring space in the past.
While all the attention is on how we’ll land a human on Mars over the next few years, it’s entirely possible our closest neighbour will offer more useful insights for life here on Earth. Watch this space.