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Curious why Mars rover has such a dinky camera and computer?

Image from Curiosity on Mars
The first image taken by the navigation cameras on NASA's Curiosity rover shows the shadow of the rover's now-upright mast in the center, and the arm's shadow at left. The arm itself can be seen in the foreground.NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA scientists deserve every high-five and hug received for surviving “seven minutes of terror” and safely landing the 1-ton Curiosity rover on Mars, but what’s up with the spacecraft’s dinky 2 megapixel camera and equally dinky PowerPC 750 computer chip?

The spacecraft also has just 4.5 gigabytes of data storage, Information Management points out in a profile of Ann Devereaux, deputy lead for the entry, descent and landing stage of Curiosity’s mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

“When people saw the data volumes we process and the memory space they’d inevitably ask, ‘You’re taking this to Mars?” Deveraux told the newsletter. “Why isn’t this the latest gear? My memory stick has more memory than your whole computer.”

The short answer, NASA scientists and space observers point out, is the team started working on the mission in 2004. At the time, these components were state-of-the-art technology already approved for the rigors of space travel including radiation bombardment and temperature extremes.

The problem is that the pace of technology moves so fast that what was relatively high-tech less than a decade ago looks comparatively lame today. Sure, any images whatsoever from the surface of Mars are super cool. But where’s the real-time streaming video?

In addition to the long-lead time for design and testing of components to fly on a mission to Mars (remember, there’s no Best Buy there to put that extended warranty to use should something break), transmitting the data from Mars to Earth is a tricky proposition. ExtremeTech notes

The rover sends data to two satellites that orbit Mars, which then relay it back to Earth. This stream of data is quite limited, to something like 256 megabits (32MB) a day. And images aren’t the only thing that Curiosity is sending back — there are all sorts of other recordings and measurements that needs to be transmitted.

So, give NASA and Curiosity a break and relish in the images that do find their way back to Earth, which are indeed quite stunning.  

Let’s just hope The Onion is joking with a report that Curiosity’s memory card is full and the mission is over.

“I guess we probably should have deleted those old Hubble photos off there before the mission," the tongue-in-cheek fake news site quoted chief scientist John Grotzinger as saying.

— via Information Management, ExtremeTech, The Onion

John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.