NASA and the $50 Million Space Processor

Sometimes the NASA ends up being a victim of his own excess of zeal and conservatism. For more than 30 years, the space agency has defended that space was no place for “common” processors and components, and those equipped with probes and exploration robots had to meet a series of requirements, such as protections against radiation, and in that, power not is the priority.

the platform RAD750, a single-board computer developed by BAE Systems in the 1990s, has been the backbone of the agency’s entire space program ever since, even as its processors remain in the megahertz range. However, things changed when the Qualcomm demonstrated that there is a place in the space for common chips, found in any cell phone, being much more powerful.

Equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801, Ingenuity left the ultra-conservative NASA, who did not believe the SoC would withstand space, look like a pan (Credit: Disclosure/NASA)

Equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801, Ingenuity left the ultra-conservative NASA, who did not believe the SoC would withstand space, look like a pan (Credit: Disclosure/NASA)

RAD750: doing a lot with VERY little

First, in fairness, the RAD750 is a little marvel, fully capable of doing everything it’s supposed to do. Allied to real-time operating systems (RTOS) such as VxWorks, it provides quick responses to any type of emergency that probes and robots have to deal with, since in space, the delay of several minutes in communication makes remote control impossible in several situations.

Let’s look at the Solar Orbiter space satellite, which although it is from ESA and not NASA, also uses an open source RTOS, in this case the RTEMS. Its tolerance rate from a wrong angle is just 2.3 degrees to a maximum of 6.5 degrees, for a maximum of 50 seconds. Go beyond that and it, which is 10 million km closer to the Sun than Mercury, fries. Literally.

An RTOS has the response time described in the code for each situation that needs to be resolved, from soil analysis and image capture, to bug fixing. Unlike Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, iOS or any other common OS, an RTOS cannot create unnecessary junk via cache, and it cannot work with subjective time windows.

Also, an RTOS only tolerates catastrophic failures, something similar to a Windows blue screen, for long periods and depending on the situation. Curiosity’s grace period between crashes, for example, is 15 years; Solar Orbiter can’t even afford to fail, or it’s toast.

On the other side of the coin is the hardware. NASA has been using the RAD750, with PowerPC architecture since 2001 (yeah babyRISC in space) and a maximum cache of 64 kB, halved between data and instructions, but also supports adding L2 to increase performance.

Clock? Between 100 and 200 MHz. Lithography, between 250 and 150 nanometers.

RAD750 system and processor, used by NASA to this day.  James Webb has one of these.  Max clock?  118 MHz (Credit: Reproduction/NASA)

RAD750 system and processor, used by NASA to this day. James Webb has one of these. Max clock? 118 MHz (Credit: Reproduction/NASA)

The great merit behind the RAD750 lies in NASA’s requirement that the computational brain of its robots and probes be protected against ionizing radiation, from particles to electromagnetic radiation, especially in environments such as low Earth orbit. Equipment for deep space, or other planets, satellites, comets, asteroids in the Solar System, etc., would also use this protected kit.

Curiosity’s kit, which has a maximum clock of 133 MHz, can execute 400 MIPS (millions of instructions per second), more than enough to handle the functions assigned to it. Remember, neither the rover nor the James Webb Space Telescope, whose maximum clock is 118 MHz, were designed to run crisisor access YouTube.

Still, NASA fell off its horse when the Ingenuity helicopter, sent to Mars in the Perseverance kit, swung into action.

NASA defeated by naivety

Developed by NASA JPL in conjunction with Lockheed Martin, Ingenuity was almost a (pardon the pun) curiosity. First, it runs Linux, not VxWorks, and second, it’s equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 SoC, without any additional preparation, other than the standard anti-radiation shield of the set.

Ironically, Ingenuity flies thanks to the most powerful processor ever sent into space, clocked at 2.26 GHz. It’s the same chip that powered a number of high-end smartphones from the mid-2010s, like the Samsung Galaxy S5, Motorola Moto X (2014), LG G3, and Sony Xperia Z3.

Of course, NASA being NASA and since Ingenuity didn’t need much, the flight control was outsourced to separate microcontrollers, which only use 500 Hz. Not GHz, not MHz. Hertz even. The main CPU is in charge of the navigation algorithm, as well as capturing images during the flight, with the 13 MP camera attached.

The results of the first man-made object to fly on alien soil are impressive, and even surprised the NASA summit. Until then, no one believed that a non-RTOS system, running on hardware not prepared for the space from the drawing board, would perform so well.

Now, the good results of Ingenuity have convinced NASA that, perhaps, it is time to upgrade its processors.

In 2021, the agency opened a tender for the development of the next generation of chips for its exploration probes and robots, now won by Microchip Technology, an Arizona company specializing in PIC microcontrollers, SRAM, EEPROMs and other components. The project, worth US$ 50 million, foresees the delivery of the chip in 2025.

Its processor design for “High Performance Spatial Computing”, or HPSC, provides connectivity, AI and machine learning support, as well as 100 times the speed of the RAD750, but that’s a detail.

The company guarantees the standard of radiation protection, code security and extreme bug tolerance, indispensable factors, but it must also meet a very specific requirement from NASA: maximum efficiency in multiple scenarios.

For example, a processor used for a rover, such as Curiosity and Perseverance, will use most of its computing power to calculate the landing sequence, but all this potential will be underutilized by the other routines.

In short, even if it operates in the MHz range, the RAD750 is more powerful (seriously!) than it needs to be, barring a one-time use situation. Still, it continues to operate on the stalk unnecessarily, and consuming more energy than necessary.

The next generation of HSPC chips should have scalable efficiency, managing to employ computing power according to the tasks to be performed, resulting in lower energy consumption in the long term.

In addition, faster and more efficient processors will allow NASA, or other agencies and partners, to develop more ambitious projects, as the bar of limitations based on the chip’s capabilities will go up a little.

Source: NASA JPL

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