back to article NASA wants a hundredfold upgrade for space computers

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 …

  1. redpawn

    Did someone..

    say Skynet?

    1. MyffyW Silver badge

      Re: Did someone..

      I'm too busy saying "c-o-m-p-u-t-e-r chips in spaaaace!"

      (although perhaps I'm a little too fond of indulging my inner Miss Piggy)

      1. LeftyX

        Re: Did someone..

        My first thought was "PICs in Space!"

    2. Totally not a Cylon

      Re: Did someone..

      Skynet is a rank amateur.... only took over 1 planet.

      Now 12, that's an achievement...

      1. MyffyW Silver badge

        Re: Did someone..

        In fairness, you had the 13th planet already, bombed the living shite of the other 12, bred with one of those you'd made homeless and then bred that hybrid with the pre-historic humans creating this humanity's mitochondrial eve.

        Still, not bad for a fracking toaster :-)

  2. Jou (Mxyzptlk) Silver badge

    We will have tube monitors in space in 2179!

    Instead or an array of light-bulbs. What? Has anyone ever seen "Aliens"? Or played Alien Isolation?

  3. Richard 12 Silver badge

    They're still around?

    ARM ate their lunch years ago, almost entirely because Microchip charged for their C compiler.

    It seems they grew half a brain at some point in the last decade, but even now they want to charge for optimisations.

    It does seem an odd choice, as their highest performance processor (SAM) appears to be a single core, 600MHz - ARM9 from 2001. It's not even Cortex, it's that old.

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: They're still around?

      There are advantages in going that far back in time. Everything is bigger so less susceptible to bit flips. Alternatively you can select a more modern manufacturing process and optimise for low power and wider temperature range. Think of every new feature as a place where radiation induced bit flips can ruin your day in a way that you will have to work around. CPUs in space often to not have a memory management unit so programmers do not have to deal with potential bit flips in the address translation cache.

      I can easily understand NASA selecting an embedded system chip designer that has retained experience with retro-tech.

      1. Gary Stewart

        Re: They're still around?

        Although what you said is correct, going that far back makes it difficult (impossible?) to get the 100X performance improvement they want. To go to smaller device features they are going to need to integrate processor error detection/correction at the chip level. Depending on the device size they decide on for the

        needed performance they might be able to integrate a three (or more) way redundant voting system on a single chip. Along with the required improved radiation hardening made more difficult by the decreased device size this may be the only way to get the performance they want. I am very surprised they chose Microchip Technology as I was not aware that they had much prior experience with radiation hardening.

        1. DS999 Silver badge

          Re: They're still around?

          going that far back makes it difficult (impossible?) to get the 100X performance improvement they want

          Depends on from how far back they're coming from. I remember not terribly long ago hearing that NASA was launching stuff using rad hard 8 bit CPUs, anything from 2001 would go way beyond 100x improvement over that.

          Edit: a little googling shows the Mars Rover uses a PowerPC CPU similar to what you might find in a late 90s Mac (though clocked slower, probably because of being made differently for the radiation hardening)

          It looks like the HSPC project mentioned in the article is going to base the next one on ARM Cortex A53 with up to 8 cores - so there's 8x of their performance increase.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: They're still around?

            Ah, thanks for doing that and reporting back. I came here to ask what "100x faster" actually means since the article doesn't mention AT ALL what is currently used, let alone MIPS, FLOPS or clock speeds.

          2. ITMA Silver badge

            Re: They're still around?

            "Edit: a little googling shows the Mars Rover uses a PowerPC CPU"

            Which "Mars Rover " are you referring to?


            Spirit & Opportunity?



            Sojourner - 80C85

            Spirit & Opporunity - RAD6000 (Power 1 architecture)

            Curiosity - RAD750 (PowerPC 750)

            Perseverance - RAD750 (ditto)

            To add a bit of variety, the New Horizons spacecraft uses a Mongoose-V (MIPS R3000) clocked at 12MHz.

            As the line in the Apollo 13 film goes - "(electrical) Power is everything"

        2. bombastic bob Silver badge

          Re: They're still around?

          contradictions in design specs:

          * must be fast

          * must tolerate cosmic radiation

          * must have low power consumption

          Resolving those will be interesting for the engineers.

          As for SAM processors, they work well for the purposes for which they were designed. Arduino uses the ATMel AVR and MicroChip bought ATMel a while back. They have not abandoned AVR support as far as I can tell, so I am happy with that. And ATMel already had SAM series processors using Cortex-M (aka 'microcontroller') which is a somewhat reduced instruction set (double-RISC?) designed for microcontroller use.

          Still does not mean they cannot use the latest ARM core. What NASA probably wants is their experience with low power consumption and good performance, on-chip peripherals [which I REALLY like] and so on.

          Plus for space they'll probably need sapphire substrates. I do not know if Microchip uses these at all (quicky search was inconclusive) but they may also have another way to do high radiation tolerant CPUs thatt we do not know about.

        3. tracker1

          Re: They're still round?

          I think pay of the design is going to come down to enclosure and sorrowing requirements. In addition to daily tolerances. I'm not sure if split brain is the way to go.

    2. twellys

      Re: They're still around?

      I'm thinking FPGAs that Microchip aquired from Microsemi (which in turn acquired from Actel).

      There's a couple of FPGA families that are Rad-Tolerant.

  4. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Didnt AstroPi already do this?

    Seriously though how long will it take to get people up to speed to fill 100 times the activity space safely?

    I know there is access to a lot of NASA code but is there access to the more recent stuff and the thinking behind it?

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: Didnt AstroPi already do this?

      AstroPi is in LEO where radiation is reduced by Earth's magnetic field. Things get much worse going through the Van Allen belt. NASA sends probes to some really horrible places like Jupiter and its moons.

      1. Korev Silver badge

        Re: Didnt AstroPi already do this?

        What's wrong with my moons?

        My self-portrait -->

  5. jmch Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Extra redundancy

    There is stuff up there in space that was launched in the 1970s and is still in communication with NASA. Of course Voyagers are extreme case, but it's to be expected that NASA can launch log-term missions now that will still be operational in 2050-2060. With that in mind it's good to load as high capacity as possible, with lots of built-in flexibility that can later be upgraded with software updates, similair to what they did with Hubble.

    1. Jou (Mxyzptlk) Silver badge

      Re: Extra redundancy

      Yeah, but Hubble frequently got new computers as well...

    2. ITMA Silver badge

      Re: Extra redundancy

      "with lots of built-in flexibility that can later be upgraded with software updates, similar to what they did with Hubble"

      Even Voyager 1 and 2 could - and did - receive software updates and virtually every NASA mission since.

      I think you are getting confused with Hubble's capability to be have HARDWARE upgrades. At least until the space shuttle fleet was grounded.

      1. Andy E

        Re: Extra redundancy

        Now that the USA has manned spaceflight capability, I wonder if there is any merit in another servicing mission to Hubble.

    3. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

      Re: Extra redundancy

      "With that in mind it's good to load as high capacity as possible"

      More important would be that it actually works for 50+ years. High clocked and small featured chips are unlikely to last very long.

  6. anonymous boring coward Silver badge

    "NASA has awarded a $50 million contract"

    So they spend money on someone making slow chips to make them much faster than existing chips form other manufacturers?

    And doing so by means of miracles, presumably? Looks like NASA has been had.

    1. tracker1

      The goal is 100x their current tech which from other comments seems to be 2+ decade old production of even older tech.

      A combination of redundancy better fault Torrance and shielding could give a combination of current arm CPU design with some custom processors for certain ai tasking more than a chance. Given the state of Arc, it may be a good fit for the task... At least as a starting point.

  7. Spoobistle

    Anthropic principle?

    Surely if it were possible to make "brains in spaaaace" robust enough to survive any length of time, then we'd be over-run by hordes of alien robots by now?

  8. This post has been deleted by its author

  9. Jedit Silver badge

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

    I thought everyone knew that Doom runs on Mars?

    (Mine's the one with the BFG-9000 in the pocket...)

    1. Antonius_Prime

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

      Framerate now measured in Frames Per Month...

      (still faster than some AAA games on the latest & greatest hardware though...)

  10. hatti

    "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that."

  11. J.G.Harston Silver badge

    There are pre-existing space-hardened 6502s and 6809s that can run at 50MHz and more. They don't need to re-invent the wheel - unless they have a technical legacy of PIC code that they need to keep running, but FASTER!

    1. ITMA Silver badge

      The Sojourner rover used an 80C85 CPU.

      And highest speed isn't everything. Power is a very finite resource on spacecraft. The general rule with processors is the faster they go, the more power they need.

      If you run out of power - brown out - at a critical moment you can have a dead spacecraft. Aka LOV (loss of vehicle) and thus probably LOM (loss of mission).

      Then you really are buggered...

      Plus older "hardened" electronics are worth their weighrt in gold compared to new "non-hardened". Sheilding is heavy compared to hardened electronics and costs you dearly to launch.

  12. Atomic Duetto


    … the money might be better spent figuring out how to create some sort of magnetic belt (braces) shielding, mimicking our one down here so they could just use COTS products like the rest of us, bonus taking COTS humans et al also. Although she’d probably see through such a cheap trick and so it remains medical experiments for the lot of you

    1. tonybarry

      Re: Or

      Magnetic shielding deals OK with charged particles (protons, electrons, and the like) but does not deal with cosmic rays or neutrons - which will also wreak havoc. The atmosphere is a necessary buffer against extra-terrestrial invasion.

      Regards, TonyB

  13. lnLog

    Arduino -> Atmega -> Atmel -> Microchip

    Microchip also now own Atmel, so have their line of SAM (arm) and AT (avr) chips. Did someone say Arduino in space....

  14. tracker1


    I'm guessing 64-128 core current arm server CPU design with ECC and a heavy shielding enclosure with an exposed bus interface similar to thunderbolt. Probably 7-12nm production.

    Could be an opportunity to partner with Intel for the AI component, salvaging from Arc.

  15. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Who supplied the PowerPC?

    If it was BAe I'm guesssing they had enough of Billions Above Estimates idea of "Competive pricing"

    I like PIC's, ever since I heard of them. Their usual design is Harvard architecture with around 4Kwords of 12bit (up to 16 bit IIRC) instructions with byte wide data. Very fast for such a machine. Also (IIRC) static registers, allowing clock slow down to 0 --> power level down to leakage levels. This is quite relevant given the grief NASA gets when it wants to use a TEG for outer planet missions. IIRC Neither Neptune nor Uranus have had any attention since Voyager.

    If they have ARM IP and a rad hard process to implement it on then yes, that's a reasonable plan.

    In theory.

    But supplier lockin is a major issue as the market is too small for many companies to swallow the up-front cost of a new process.

  16. Toni the terrible Bronze badge

    long space missions

    They just want Hal

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