NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover: A Win for Computer Science

After traveling through space for over 200 days, the NASA Perseverance rover touched down on the surface of Mars on February 21, 2021. The NASA Perseverance rover will provide us with detailed images of never before seen areas of Mars. This important mission was a success due to the efforts of many different researchers, but one important group to highlight is the computer scientists tasked with working on the project. The field of computer science is critical to unmanned space missions because it helps to bridge the gap between the goal of the mission and the technical components that are needed to achieve that goal.

The computer scientists working on Perseverance utilized the latest secure programming methods to ensure that the coding of the rover was protected. The rover did not need to be protected just from outside hackers though, but also from bugs that could be introduced by future updates and from the harsh Mars environment. To do this the computer scientist used Linux operating systems to power the autonomous helicopter components of Perseverance. Linux systems are well known for their reliability and stability, even after updates. The autonomous helicopter component alone is significant because it will be the first use of autonomous machinery on another planet.

One surprising choice made by the computer scientists to protect the rover is the use of a processor from 1998. The rover uses the PowerPC 750, a single-core, 233MHz processor with only 6 million transistors. This same processor could be found in iMacs from 1998. While many other components of the Perseverance rover are state of the art, the choice to use an older processor was due to the harsh conditions of the planet. An advanced processor would be a detriment to NASA’s mission since one large burst of radiation would interfere with the highly sensitive components of a modern processor.

The rover will analyze the environmental components of the planet, including searching for microorganisms, using artificial intelligence. None of this would have been possible without the help of well-trained computer scientists. This amazing accomplishment also shows why it is important for computer science students to be well-rounded in both the software and hardware requirements of a system. The EKU Online Masters in Computer Science program offers coursework that covers all of these skills and more. You can find more information about this program here.

- Thomas W. Morris, B.S. Computer Science & Psychology, Eastern Kentucky University

Published on May 13, 2021