In July 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission. In August and September 1977, NASA launched Voyager 2 and then Voyager 1 — space probes with the primary purpose of exploring the outer reaches of the galaxy. Voyager 2 is still the only space probe that has ever visited Uranus and Neptune. The Voyager spacecraft are still exploring outer space 41 years later.
What do the Apollo missions and the Voyager spacecraft have in common? The modern smartphone outranks the computer technology that made those space explorations possible. It took the Apollo 11 missions only four Apollo Guidance Computers (AGC) to get man to the moon.
Even more impressive, it was a woman who got man to the moon (sort of). Margaret Hamilton, a systems engineer who wrote the code that defined the Apollo 11 mission, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2016. The code that was written, when stacked, stood taller than Hamilton.
However, as pointed out by Popular Mechanics, at the time of the missions, the computers utilized were ten years ahead of their time. This was before the microchip ever existed.
IBM assisted NASA in creating the computer infrastructure that facilitated the Apollo missions. Rhuaridh Marr, from Metro Weekly writes:
“The Apollo Guidance Computer directing the rocket was an incredible achievement for NASA -- it was the first computer system to provide real-time information about the spacecraft as it navigated, detailing important stats and allowing for automatic navigation.”
Nonetheless, by the time the Apple II personal computer came out, the technology that guided astronauts through space was outperformed. However, it is undeniably true that NASA ran an entire space exploration program from start to finish with less technology than what’s inside an iPhone. The Apollo Guidance Computer only had four kilobytes of RAM, where modern-day laptops have eight gigabyte RAM sticks. An Apple iPhone’s processor runs at 150MHz, whereas the Apollo computer ran at 1MHz. And they only had 32 kilobytes of storage capacity. Marr writes:
“The Apollo computer took a spacecraft to the moon and back, and it’s 150 times less powerful than a processor that knows whether you’re walking or driving.”
You can now access the exact code that was used on the command and lunar modules that made the Apollo missions possible here.
Not done yet
NASA is not done sending probes into space just yet. They have just launched a new probe that is set to ‘touch the sun’.
NASA is sending a probe to fly into the low solar corona. It will comb through coronal plasma and magnetic fields that appear to facilitate the acceleration of energetic particles nearby the sun.
The Parker Solar Probe will be the fastest spacecraft in history. It will also get seven times closer to the sun than the previous record holder, the Helios B. It is expected to get within 3.9 million miles of the sun’s surface. It will orbit the sun 24 times, capturing data that will be pored over down here on earth.
A lot of the information that will be perused will be the data generated on the way to the sun. While researchers are hopeful that data can be generated while the probe is in close proximity to the sun, they say that might not garner any results. The strongest focus will be put on understanding solar wind.
At its optimum speed, the Parker Solar Probe will orbit the sun at 430,000 miles per hour. It will experience temperatures of 2,500 Fahrenheit (1,400 degrees Celsius). A carbon composite engineered shield is what protects the probe from the scorching temperatures of the sun. It also employs a white, reflective alumina surface layer that lessens the absorption of heat. The craft is powered by photovoltaic solar arrays.
The probe will hopefully report back on which segment of the sun is responsible for heating up and distributing the solar wind that is emitted and sent towards earth and other planets. It was engineered by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.
Grossman, David. “The One Way Apollo Computers Still Beat the iPhone.” Popular Mechanics, Popular Mechanics, 15 Feb. 2018, www.popularmechanics.com/space/moon-mars/a25655/nasa-computer-iphone-comparison/.
“To the Moon and Back on 4KB of Memory.” Metro Weekly, 7 Dec. 2017, www.metroweekly.com/2014/07/to-the-moon-and-back-on-4kb-of-memory/.