Nasa's Orion: The next generation of spacecraft computing

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

...simplify the system-monitoring tasks that have to be undertaken by spacecraft crew.

Matt Lemke, Orion avionics, power and wiring manager at Nasa, told "In the Shuttle [the crew] carry big books of procedures and have to do each individual item. You'll have checklists that say 'Flip this switch', 'Record this value here', 'Do this calculation' and then 'Enter this data over here'.

"On Orion, [the crew] are looking at electronic procedures on displays - those procedures have been pre-called-up and pre-loaded-in. For example, the procedures say, 'Go and find the pressure inside this tank'. The computer goes and does it for them and enters the pressure and recommends what it thinks will be the right value.

"It doesn't automatically execute those procedures - the crew still gets a chance to say 'yes' before doing anything - but the data is already integrated for them and if the crew isn't onboard then it can take care of these procedures itself."

Crew onboard Orion - which borrows elements of its cockpit design and software from the forthcoming Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft - will also find it easier to pilot and interact with than its predecessors.

A reproduction of part of the Orion cockpit dashboard inside a flight simulator

This reproduction of part of the Orion cockpit dashboard is used inside a flight simulator
(Photo credit: Nick Heath/

The fiddly dials, gauges and switches that littered the cockpit of the Shuttle when it launched will be mostly replaced in Orion by three displays, which are controlled by buttons around their edges and a "cursor-controlled device" that works like a PC mouse.

The crew will be able to call up some 30 different screens on the displays, covering information ranging from the spacecraft's position in orbit to its comms coverage.

The information set out on these displays will be tailored to what crew members need to know to carry out their daily tasks, bringing together multiple spacecraft systems in one place - a change from previous spacecraft where each screen on the display would only show information from individual spacecraft systems, such as electrics or life support.

Space's jack of all trades
Nasa hopes to be flying Orion for decades and sees the spacecraft as something of a jack of all trades - intercepting asteroids one mission and landing on Mars or the moon the next.

Helping Orion to fulfil such diverse mission objectives will be...

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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