The James Webb Telescope’s hard drive can’t store Warzone, but it will withstand the horrifying effects of cosmic radiation

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Our colleagues at Tom’s Hardware (opens in new tab) noticed something interesting: the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a replacement for the Hubble array used to take HD pictures of the farthest reaches of space, has an absolutely puny hard drive—68 gigabytes. What gives?!

I think this gets at some interesting questions about what makes computer hardware “powerful” or, more accurately, well-suited to its task. The JWST, which has been pumping out some incredible images (opens in new tab), is outfitted with a “Solid State Recorder” that stores the array’s collected data before transmitting it down to Earth. The JWST is built to collect around 57GB of data each day, transmitting half the quota at a time during two orbital windows in the Earth’s rotation. The telescope itself has no substantial long-term storage because it doesn’t need it—that data doesn’t do anyone any good floating in space.

To withstand the ambient hazards of open space, the JWST’s hard drive has been “radiation-hardened,” and it has about 10 gigs of storage more than it needs for daily operation—intentional redundancy to ensure it retains functional capacity as it degrades over its planned 10-year lifespan.

Ultimately, I always find it somewhat profound to see the same basic hardware and concepts at play in consumer hardware applied to the most advanced and cutting-edge human endeavors. It’s like seeing a blue screen of death on a billboard and being reminded it’s just a supersized computer, but instead of a little wry chuckle you get a rush at the thought of humanity’s potential.

It’s also a reminder that all the raw computing power in the world—teraflops, gigabytes, things of that nature—is meaningless if not used effectively. My beefy desktop has almost as much RAM as the JWST has storage, but regularly crashes under the weight of Chrome. I find some of the most interesting stories in computing come from doing the most with less, and while the JWST’s SSD could not fit Warzone or even Destiny 2 for that matter, it is precisely the right tool for its job.