Nasa's Orion: The next generation of spacecraft computing

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

...two identical flight computers, each able to take over from the other in case of a system failure.

"We have two flight computers on Orion, each one thinks that it is completely controlling the vehicle," Lemke said.

"If you lose a flight computer the rest of the vehicle wouldn't even know that it happened."

Every bit of data sent from Orion's onboard computers is also checked to ensure no incorrect information is sent out over the spacecraft's network.

"The computer fails silently - it puts data out and there are two processors within each computer that have to run in lock-step to make sure they are doing exactly the same thing," Lemke said.

"If ever [one of the processors] tries to put out a command that is not identical on both sides, down to the individual bit level, it doesn't send anything out to the bus.

"The hardware is checking that every bit that goes out is correct, and if it's not, it turns off its transmitter and will never send out bad data."

Keeping the weight off
Weight is a major consideration when it comes to spacecraft design. Every kilo matters when you are trying to break free of earth's gravity and still keep costs down. For example, each Shuttle launch costs about $450m and requires the Shuttle to burn through more than 830,000 gallons of rocket fuel.

To cut the cost of getting into orbit, Orion has been designed to minimise its weight, with the amount of computing and network infrastructure the spacecraft carries reduced by its ability to house different systems on the same computers and network.

The library of paper manuals containing crew procedures have also been digitised onboard Orion, further lightening the spacecraft.

However, just as Nasa is always pushing deeper into our solar system, so the agency and its commercial partners are continually refining computing technology ready for future spacecraft.

"As much as we have shrunk and integrated things for Orion, we are never at the end of that activity," Honeywell's Smithgall said.

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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