Greetings From Mars

What it takes for chips to survive in space.


Hello Mars. Congratulations to the amazing engineers and scientists at NASA and Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL) for a successful touchdown on the Mars Jezero Crater.

In July 2020, NASA launched the Perseverance rover mission, which sought to find signs of habitable conditions, search for biosignatures, and collect samples for future Mars-sample-return missions and human expeditions. Seven months later, Perseverance landed successfully in the Jezero Crater.

The Perseverance rover includes a FPGA-based hardware accelerator in its Vision Compute Element (VCE) that will aid in landing navigation and autonomous driving on the Martian surface. The radiation-hardened Xilinx Virtex-5QVs (SIRF) serve as the reprogrammable visual processor in the computer vision accelerator card (CVAC) used to accelerate certain stereo and visual tasks like image rectification, filtering, detection, and matching. Also included on some of the instruments are the Mastcam-Z, a multispectral stereoscopic imaging instrument, which uses a radiation-tolerant Virtex-II FPGA (XQR2V3000) in the digital box based on the Mars Science Lab (MSL) architecture, and the Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals (SHERLOC) spectrometer, which uses the MAHLI with a camera system incorporating the XQR2V3000 FPGAs.

Fig. 1: Perseverance Rover (Source: NASA)

As we all know, this was not the first mission to Mars and there has been so much exciting work done to date – it is worth taking a look back.

NASA’s Opportunity Rover Mission came to an end on February 13, 2019, after exploring the surface of Mars for 15 earth years, even though the design was intended to last just 90 Martian days. NASA’s Mars Exploration Program is one of the most successful interplanetary exploration missions ever.

Fig. 2: MER Opportunity (Source: NASA)

NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission involved two Mars rovers: “Spirit” and “Opportunity.” They were designed to explore the planet for water sources on Mars. Planned to last 90 days, the rovers exceeded everyone’s expectations with Spirit lasting 7+ years (20X longer) and Opportunity lasting 15 years (55X longer)—both returning valuable information about the geological composition of the planet.

In creating these incredible MERs, designed to run on solar power, the JPL team used radiation-tolerant Virtex-4 FPGAs, state-of-the-art in FPGA space-grade technology at the time of the design, for both the landing and on-surface operation of the Mars rovers. Specifically, XQVR4062 FPGAs went into each MER landing craft to control the crucial pyrotechnic operations during a rover’s multiphase descent and landing procedure, when the engineers trigger explosives for various stages of the maneuver. NASA engineers used the FPGAs at the heart of the Lander Pyro Switch Interface system, which orchestrated the MERs’ elaborate pyrotechnic sequence to the millisecond. In addition, NASA also used XQVR1000s in the MER Motor Control Board, which oversees the motors for the wheels, steering, arms, cameras, and various instrumentation, enabling the rovers to travel about the planet’s often silt-like surface and negotiate various obstacles.

Fig. 3: MSL Curiosity (Source: NASA)

The next rover to travel to Mars, the Mars Science Lab (MSL), aka “Curiosity,” was launched in 2011 and traveled for eight months on a 352-million-mile journey. Designed to run on nuclear power, it is still navigating the Martian surface, trying to ascertain whether the planet ever supported microbial lifeform. Initially designed for a 2-year mission, the rover is still operational and going strong 8+ years later and will likely continue to do so for years to come.

Space-grade products enable key instrument systems like MAHLI (imager), ChemCam (remote sensing instruments), Electra-Lite (communications), and MALIN (processor) on the rover. Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), a camera on the rover’s robotic arm, acquires images, while the MALIN system consists of backend image processing boxes that process images from all onboard cameras. Xilinx’s Virtex-II (XQR2V3000) Radiation Tolerant FPGAs implement the image pipelines in these systems. All interface, compression, and timing functions are implemented as logic peripherals of a MicroBlaze soft-processor core in the Virtex-II FPGA. This enables the Curiosity to send back stunning images of an alien landscape that is 35 million miles away. ChemCam (Chemistry and Camera Complex) provides elemental compositions and high-resolution images of rock and soil using Xilinx’s radiation tolerant XQ2V1000 FPGA.

Curiosity is equipped with significant telecommunications systems like the X Band transmitter and receiver that can communicate with Earth and a UHF Electra-Lite software-defined radio for communicating with Mars’ orbiters that serve as the primary path for data return to Earth. Xilinx’s XQR2V3000 radiation-tolerant FPGAs serve in these communication boxes, providing critical links back to Earth.

Xilinx FPGAs are doing their part in the lander rover and instruments, including the vision processor to perform image processing optimization for the historic first images.


Max Baker says:

Go SIRF!!!

Note the XQVR4062 is not a Virtex-4 part, it’s from the much older 4000-series FPGAs ( Looks like the rad-hard version of the XC4062XL with a whopping 5k flip flops 🙂

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