NASA, US Air Force Need More Robust Spaceflight Processors
May 16, 2013

NASA, US Air Force Need More Robust Spaceflight Processors

Lee Rannals for — Your Universe Online

NASA and the US Air Force (USAF) Research Laboratory said they are looking for four companies to research and develop high-performance spaceflight computing capabilities.

The new Air Force Next Generation Space Processor Analysis Program seeks to find companies to perform a yearlong evaluation of advanced, space-based applications that would use spaceflight processors for the 2020 to 2030 time frame. NASA decided to join the Air Force initiative after investigators evaluated 19 real-life mission scenarios involving the use of flight processors.

"We surveyed NASA's needs and it became more than obvious that we could take advantage of an advanced processor," study leader Richard Doyle, the program manager for JPL's Information and Data Science Program, said in a statement.

He said their flight needs are more extreme so they need processors that can perform robustly in a radiation environment.

Michael Gazarik, associate administrator for NASA´s Space Technology Mission Directorate at the agency´s headquarters in Washington, said in April that computer processors and applications aboard spacecraft will need to transform to take advantage of computational leaps in technology and new mission needs.

“NASA´s Space Technology Program is teaming with the Air Force to develop the next generation spaceflight processor requirements and propose solutions to meet future high performance space computing needs in the upcoming decades," Gazarik said.

According to Wes Powell, a NASA Goddard engineer who participated in the study, NASA's current start-of-the-art is less capable of what is available in most consumer products. NASA said both military and civilian mission planners need specialized processors that have been hardened against radiation-induced upsets.

The state-of-the-art single-board computer aboard the Curiosity rover, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) and the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is an RAD750. The space agency said although it is hardened against radiation-induced upsets and uses just five watts of power, the chip computes just 200 million operations per second.

"To get around these computational limitations, mission designers are implementing highly customized processors featuring more powerful, radiation-hardened, field-programmable gate arrays, which are capable of implementing application-specific processing circuitry," NASA said.

Powell added that while these custom-designed processing solutions handled heavier data loads, they can be difficult and time consuming to program.

"What NASA needs is an energy-efficient general-purpose processor capable of billions of operations per second, thereby making it applicable to most missions," Powell said. "The bottom line is that while the RAD750 has been very successful, it is generations behind the current state-of-the-art."

The team surveyed six different architectures and decided that multi-core processing would satisfy NASA's future objectives. This technology is currently used in desktops, mobile PCs, servers and workstations.

"The key challenges are processing throughput, radiation and fault tolerance, power efficiency, and the ability to broadly scale power and performance, using no more than seven watts," Powell said.

He said they need a significant increase in performance and power efficiency, and a small incremental improvement will not justify the investment.

"The development of a spaceflight multi-core processor will provide transformational improvements in onboard processing for NASA's future missions," Powell added.