NASA wants a hundredfold upgrade for space computers

Does it hope to run Doom on the Moon or something?

NASA has awarded a $50 million contract to Microchip Technology, the microcontroller giant, to develop next-generation processors that will enable space computers to be 100 times faster than they currently are.

If NASA is to fulfill its goal of exploring deeper into the solar system, it's going to have to develop advanced computers capable of carrying out complex navigation and communication tasks for all sorts of hardware – from spacecraft to robotic rovers. 

Thus, the US space agency wants a hardy processor line that can not only survive tough environments with extreme temperatures and high cosmic radiation, but will also have at least 100 times the computational capacity of today's computer chips in space.

"This cutting-edge spaceflight processor will have a tremendous impact on our future space missions and even technologies here on Earth," Niki Werkheiser, director of technology maturation within the Space Technology Mission Directorate, said this week.

"This effort will amplify existing spacecraft capabilities and enable new ones, and could ultimately be used by virtually every future space mission, all benefiting from more capable flight computing."

NASA has tapped Microchip Technology – an Arizona company founded in the 1980s and famous for its PIC line of chips – for the job of developing its next-generation space chip. The $50 million contract will fund Microchip's efforts to design and manufacture the so-called High-Performance Spaceflight Computing (HPSC) processor over three years. NASA wants the chip's architecture to be reliable, capable of operating with a higher fault tolerance, and much more powerful.

The processor design has to be general enough to support a wide range of applications – including AI, edge computing, Ethernet data transmission, and other communication systems. Microchip will have to think about how the chip can be adapted to power all types of missions that will monitor Earth, explore Mars, or possibly support astronauts to (and on) the Moon.

"We are pleased that NASA selected Microchip as its partner to develop the next-generation space-qualified compute processor platform," beamed Babak Samimi, corporate vice president for Microchip's Communications business unit.

"We will foster an industry-wide ecosystem of single board computer partners anchored on the HPSC processor and Microchip's complementary space-qualified total system solutions to benefit a new generation of mission-critical edge compute designs optimized for size, weight, and power."

It's about time NASA revamps its space computers, according to Wesley Powell, NASA's principal technologist for advanced avionics. "Our current spaceflight computers were developed almost 30 years ago. While they have served past missions well, future NASA missions demand significantly increased onboard computing capabilities and reliability. The new computing processor will provide the advances required in performance, fault tolerance, and flexibility to meet these future mission needs."

The Register has asked NASA and Microchip Technology for more comment. ®

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