Nasa's Orion: The next generation of spacecraft computing

Summary:How IT will smooth mankind's missions into outer space

How IT will smooth mankind's missions into outer space

As the spacecraft likely to carry astronauts to the moon or even to Mars, it's fitting that Nasa's Orion will contain the most advanced computing tech ever sent into orbit.

Orion marks a step change in spacecraft computing, far outstripping the processing power and capabilities of systems onboard Nasa's current manned craft, the Space Shuttle.

"Compared with the computers that fly the Shuttle today - perfectly adequately - the Orion computers are 500 or 1,000 times faster and more capable," Todd Smithgall, Orion avionics systems engineer at Honeywell Aerospace, the company working with Lockheed Martin and Nasa to produce computing hardware and software for Orion, told

But it's not raw horsepower that makes Orion's IT special. The onboard systems will help make Orion one of the most self-sufficient spacecraft ever launched when it begins manned spaceflights later this decade.

Orion's computers are capable of running the spaceship systems without any intervention from the crew, able to monitor spacecraft systems automatically, prioritise critical operations and recover from a flight computer failure.

A life-size model of the Orion spacecraft capsule

Designers at Lockheed Martin in Houston use this full-size Orion mock-up to test equipment configurations
(Photo credit: Nick Heath/

The self-sufficient nature of Orion will prove essential during the long-term deep-space missions that Nasa has in mind for the spacecraft, such as landing on the moon, rendez-vousing with an asteroid or even undertaking a manned mission to Mars.

During such missions there could be periods where Orion may be both without crew and out of contact with Nasa Mission Control, requiring the ship to look after the navigation and other critical systems onboard unaided.

Brad Holcomb, deputy programme manager with Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said the Orion's self-reliance will make it more adaptable during missions.

"When you undertake a more exploratory mission like intercepting an asteroid, you are leaving behind the infrastructure of ground stations and GPS, and as a result, the spacecraft has to be more independent. It can't be relying on links to the ground for every little daily task.

"As situations come up - for example, a mission experiment may not work as planned - you have some contingencies to fall back on, because the spacecraft is more independent, you can absorb change a lot easier."

The ability of Orion to retrieve data automatically from spacecraft systems and input that data into the onboard computers will...

Topics: Hardware


Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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