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IBM box to manage Mars mission

Eat your heart out, Deep Blue. A souped-up IBM 32-bit RS/6000 server will soon visit Mars.

There may not be life on Mars, but soon there will be artificial intelligence.

An IBM (IBM) 32-bit RS/6000 will land on Mars on July 4 as part of the Mars Pathfinder, a NASA mission designed to more fully explore and photograph the soil and topography of Earth's closest neighbor.

The RISC-based computer will direct the spacecraft through the atmosphere and then guide Sojourner, a 22-pound, six-wheeled mobile unit, through an ancient valley called Ares Vallis.

IBM's involvement in the NASA project comes as a cost-cutting experiment at the space agency, according to Bill Polk, a project manager with Lockheed Martin Federal Systems, which designed the computer's microprocessor for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. By using a commercially available system, NASA was able to keep costs down as well as shorten the development cycle, he said.

Of course, the same model is not exactly available on shelves near you. The computer contains a radiation-hardened PowerPC microprocessor with a space computational throughput capability of 35 million instructions per second (MIPS), which Lockheed Martin proudly points out is the highest throughput rate of any space-bound computer to date. The processor is also designed to withstand temperatures ranging from -55 degrees Celsius to 70 degrees Celsius. Complementing the chip is a hermetically sealed memory unit.

"This is the first of many applications for this technology," said William Gianopulos, Lockheed's vice president of advanced applications.

The computer will be responsible for guiding Sojourner on the surface of Mars as well as governing its sensory elements. Among other duties, the lander will use stereo and multicolor imaging technology to render an accurate portrait of the planet's surface, take geological samples, and perform atmospheric tests.

The Pathfinder mission launched on December 4, 1996, and is scheduled for a July 4 entry.

For all its hard work, the IBM computer will be deserted. None of the equipment will return, according to NASA.