Nasa's Orion: The next generation of spacecraft computing

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

...the spacecraft's highly configurable central computer systems and network.

Orion's computers are easier to configure that those onboard the Space Shuttle due to the way Orion's systems parcel up data and send it around the spacecraft network, and how they split processing power and memory between tasks.

According to Honeywell's Smithgall, it reduces the time needed to prepare for a mission. "Preparation for a given mission could conceivably take weeks or months instead of years," he said.

Orion will use a networking technology called Time-Triggered Gigabit Ethernet, which will allow Nasa engineers to categorise different types of data and prioritise how that data should travel through the onboard network.

Time-critical control data, for example - such as that relating to vital systems like navigation and life support - is called time-triggered data and will have guaranteed bandwidth and message timing to ensure it always gets to its destination on time.

Data that is critical for delivery but not for timing - such as file transfers – is called rate- constrained data and is sent immediately whenever time-triggered data is not present. Conventional Ethernet data - used for non-critical tasks such as crew videoconferencing - is called best-effort data and will be delivered over the remaining bandwidth.

A partially furnished interior shot of the reproduction of the Orion spacecraft

The interior of the reproduction of Orion is only partially furnished
(Photo credit: Nick Heath/

The technology means that critical data and non-essential data will be able to travel safely over a single network onboard a spacecraft for the first time. On the Shuttle and the space station critical data travels over a separate dedicated network.

A second technology known as Integrated Modular Avionics (IMA), already used on aircraft such as the Boeing 777, will make it easier for Nasa to configure the onboard computing for different tasks between missions.

"On spacecraft up until now, and the Shuttle is an example of this, you have had different computers for different purposes - for instance, there's an engine-controller computer, there's a flight-control computer, there's a systems-management computer, there's a display processor," Smithgall said.

"They are all built by different people and they all run different OSes and different software languages - so you can imagine that ...

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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