Science & Tech
How the Mars Curiosity rover stacks up against the iPhone 5
Apple products can take you to some pretty far off places, but NASA is known for taking its electronics a bit farther. For the Curiosity rover that means Mars.
Three members of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory shared the frustrations and joys of taking a 2-ton robot and shooting it at a neighboring planet. Those members from the Mars Science Laboratory include Software Chief Engineer Ben Cichy, Activity Planning and Sequencing Software Manager James Kurien and Lead Flight Director David Oh.
Sending the rover to Mars is a huge technical achievement considering missions to the red planet only have a 33 percent success rate. But the three engineers really helped put the Mars mission into terms the average Apple fan can understand, especially when it came to the computer that runs the rover:
“This computer is a very capable space computer, but I wanted to give you some insight into what capabilities that computer has,” Cichy told the crowd. “So let's see how Curiosity stacks up with our iPhones.”
After which, he pulled up the specs for the iPhone 5 and Curiosity. The smartphone actually holds its own against the planet-hopping robot.
The iPhone 5 has a 1.3Ghz processor beating Curiosity's 132Mhz. The iPhone also has a robust 1GB of memory and 64GB of storage, winning out over the rover's 128MB of memory and 4GB of storage.
The rover and iPhone both share most of the same equipment for navigating their respective worlds. Both have 3-axis gyros and accelerometers. But the Rover left for Mars with a radar system to help it get around.
The Mars robot is also a little more durable. Curiosity can take temperatures from -67 to 158 degrees F, compared to the puny range of the iPhone of 32 to 95 degrees F. And that is only for the inside of the rover–the outside has to withstand temperatures two to three times greater than that.
Also, Curiosity had to survive the “7 minutes of terror.” That's the time it took for the craft to enter Mars' atmosphere and land on the surface, about a 7-mile journey. In that time, Curiosity went from a speed of 13,000 mph to 0 mph for a safe landing. You'd be lucky to drop your iPhone from any height and have it survive the fall unscathed.
Curiosity also wins in the best accessories department: the iPhone's earbuds versus the rover's laser. The laser is used to burn holes into the surface of Mars so scientists can examine the chemical composition of the resulting vapor and plasma.
And the robot has a 7-foot long arm, strong enough to pick up the average person and shake them.
Though people complain about the exorbitant cost of the iPhone 5, which is at about $400 with a contract for the 64GB version. But it's got nothing on the $1.8 billion price tag on the Mars rover.
“One of the cool things about Curiosity is the technology. When you first look at it, you're really carrying around in your pocket more processing power than Curiosity rover has,” Cichy said. “But that doesn't mean in any way that the Curiosity rover doesn't have state of the art electronics.”
Maybe next time it sends a probe to Mars, the NASA jet lab will save itself a whole lot of trouble and just put in an iPhone to control the rover. There's got to be an app for that, right?
For more of Allvoices' coverage of Macworld/iWorld 2013, the Ultimate iFan Event, check out allvoices.com/macworld.