While everyone is obsessed with the pictures of the universe taken through NASA’s James Webb Telescope,
Only the tech-savvy ask the question: what kind of super-powerful computers does NASA use to explore the universe?
At first, one might think it must be massive supercomputers that cost millions, maybe billions,
Well, that might not be the case.
A few years ago, we saw this picture.
The pictures date back to 2019 when NASA unveiled the Event Horizon Telescope Project’s first clear picture of a blackhole.
Processed on a Macbook Pro?!
Yes, the Apple laptop is sold from $1299 to regular people.
But is that true?
What Is NASA
While NASA is committed to cosmological research, office politics are what gave rise to the organization.
The National Aeronautics and Space Act (NASA) was created to “provide for research into problems of flight within and outside the earth’s atmosphere, and for other purposes” and was signed into law on July 29, 1958. One of those additional goals was “to overcome the interservice rivalries that had confused the U.S. missile and space programs”.
That’s history. Today, NASA is the biggest space agency worldwide, carrying out high-profile space missions, such as the first picture of a blackhole, the surface of Pluto, the moon landing, and most recently, the James Webb Telescope images of the universe as never seen before.
Now, back to computers.
What Computers Do NASA Use?
NASA sought the assistance of the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM). At the time, the Mercury and Gemini programs’ mission control and data management were powered by IBM mainframe computers from the 7090 series.
The mainframe IBM 7090 was replaced by the IBM 7094. In order to keep up with the expanding scientific workloads in the 1960s, IBM notes that the advanced solid-state IBM 7094 provided significant increases in internal operating speeds and functional capacities. Depending on the particular application, the powerful IBM 7094 had an internal processing speed that was between 1.4 and 2.4 times faster than the 7090.
It is noted that as advanced as the 7094 was, it was only as fast as a personal computer of the late 1980s.
Increased demand for memory and processing, like with many early computing technologies, compelled organizations to find more powerful solutions. The System 360 series was introduced by IBM in 1964, and according to NASA, it was “a compatible line of several computers of different sizes using a new multiprocessing operating system that owed some of its characteristics to the company’s NASA experiences.”
Although the first three Apollo (unmanned) missions were supported by the four remaining 7094 computers, IBM used the first 360 replacements to start developing software for the Apollo lunar missions, according to NASA.
The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC)
It is important to keep in mind that many of the AGC’s features were either created specifically for the project or modified for it.
DSKY was invented to assist astronauts in using the computer, and the core rope memory system was only recently developed.
DSKY required astronauts to input commands into the interface using two-digit commands, with one digit standing in for a “verb” and the other for a “noun.” Nouns referred to the data that would be affected by the action, while verbs described the actions the computer was to carry out. The Inertial Measurement Unit would use a sextant to align the craft after receiving information from the DSKY in the lower instrument bay of the spacecraft.
Which computer does NASA use? Because there are computers used for space travel on the actual spacecraft and computers used back on Earth for guidance and calculating the algorithms that keep them up there, there are basically two answers to this question.
The Pleiades Supercomputer is the monster in charge of simulating the scenarios for launching people into space from our massive rock, with the goal of keeping them up there long enough to carry out their tasks and return safely to solid ground.
However, workstations and laptops are fairly typical devices you would find in any governmental setting. In reality, the NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) Division was the first to connect supercomputers and workstations, enabling the distribution of computation and visualization—what we now refer to as client/server.
Scientists and engineers can always request a platform of their choosing, and Macs are frequently selected. You don’t have to install a program specifically for X11 applications since all the users of Macs use the Mac for everything and emulate Windows versions when needed.
According to Robert Frost, Instructor and Flight Controller at NASA, most Apple computers can be found at the more study-driven centers but not at operations-oriented centers.
HP, IBM, and Dell produce the workstations at NASA facilities and the laptops used on the ISS. The IBM ThinkPad is primarily used on space shuttles and is approved for use after passing tests for off-gassing, radiation, thermal stability, fire, and fire suppression.
While NASA landed people on the moon, your dishwasher is smarter than the Apollo Guidance Computer.
They rely on innovative software and systems running on commercial-grade devices to explore the universe. In the 60s, Margaret Hamilton developed the code for the Apollo Mission, using mathematics and physics. In fact, the term “software engineer” is thought to have been coined by her.
So next time you think your brand new computer might make you a NASA scientist, remember that humans went to the moon, not computers.