A few months back I reported on the MIPS-based Mongoose-V chip guiding the New Horizons probe in its quest to reach Pluto. The story captured the headlines of many publications and generated many questions about the MIPS architecture (more on this in a separate article).

Today I’d like to focus on another important space mission called Hayabusa-2 that is currently on track to reach a rare asteroid called (162173) 1999 JU3. The probe is also programmed to analyze and report on the origin and evolution of the solar system.

Hayabusa-2, the asteroid explorer

Hayabusa-2 is a spacecraft operated by JAXA (the Japanese equivalent of NASA) and features technologies worthy of a Star Trek movie, including ion propulsion engines, upgraded guidance and navigation systems, high-precision antennas for deep space communications, and state-of-the-art infrared cameras.

JAXA Hayabusa-2Hayabusa-2 is an asteroid explorer built to study the origin of the solar system

The NEC Corporation of Tokyo was commissioned in January 2012 to create the electronics systems of the 590 kg spacecraft and JAXA successfully launched the probe in December 2014.

Many will remember NEC for the revolutionary engineering work on the 64-bit MIPS-based chip that powered the Nintendo N64, the first 64-bit games console. Fun fact: our MIPS CPU was so popular with N64 developers that they named the rabbit in the Super Mario 64 franchise after it.

64-bit MIPS CPUs: from Nintendo N64 to space travel

Like Nintendo N64 before it, Hayabusa-2 also uses a 64-bit MIPS CPU. However, the Hayabusa-2 engineers opted for an upgraded version called HR5000 fabricated by HIREC using a special, patented radiation-hardened process specifically developed by the Japanese corporation for space use.

The HR5000 processor is clocked at 200MHz and includes high-performance MIPS64 features like a dual-issue execution unit, a floating point unit (FPU), a translation lookaside buffer (TLB), and cache memories with parity check functionality.

JAXA HIREC HR5000 MIPS MIPS64A die shot of the MIPS64-based HIREC HR5000 used inside the Hayabusa-2 probe

Since low power has been a defining characteristic of the MIPS architecture, HR5000 only requires up to 4-6W of energy (the equivalent of a modern day chip for smartphones) and weighs 40 grams, including packaging. You can find a detailed block diagram of the chip below:

HIREC HR5000 - MIPS 5Kf HIREC HR5000 is a 64-bit MIPS chip used in space applications

The probe runs on a Japanese home-grown operating system called ITRON used by many global companies, including Toyota. ITRON creator Ken Sakamura was a guest keynote speaker at the 2014 Imagination Summit held in Tokyo; during his speech, he described the work his team had been doing on the MIPS architecture and where he planned to take the OS next.

Hayabusa-2 is set to reach 1999 JU3 in the summer of 2018, and return to the Earth in 2020 with samples from the asteroid. JAXA is presently running a campaign to name 1999 JU3 according to the naming rules of minor planets.

For a chance to become the godparent of a rare Cg-type asteroid, pick a funky name, fill in the application form on their website, and keep your fingers crossed.

I’ve reached out to the space engineers that have built the MIPS-powered probe and hope to come back soon with more in-depth information. Follow us on Twitter (@ImaginationTech, @MIPSguru) and search for the hashtag #MIPSinSpace for more news and updates.

About the author: Alex Voica

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Before deciding to pursue his dream of working in technology marketing, Alexandru held various engineering roles at leading semiconductor companies in Europe. His background also includes research in computer graphics and VR at the School of Advanced Studies Sant'Anna in Pisa. You can follow him on Twitter @alexvoica.

View all posts by Alex Voica