From Apollo-age tech to the IT powering the spacecraft of tomorrow
Watch a Nasa shuttle burning a path into space or a video of Saturn's rings taken by the Cassini satellite and it's hard not to marvel at man's technological prowess.
But the surprising truth is that space exploration is built on IT which lags many years behind that found in today's consumer gadgets and corporate PCs.
To this day, Nasa still uses elements of technology that powered the moon landings of the 1960s and 1970s, while the International Space Station (ISS) - the manned station circling the Earth 250 miles above our heads - relies on processors dating back more than two decades.
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It's a similar story for Nasa's space shuttles, the soon-to-be-retired workhorses for manned spaceflight, which have only undergone a single major avionics computer systems upgrade since the shuttle programme was launched in the 1970s.
"In aerospace, you don't fly the cutting-edge technology that is being used on the ground by business," Alessandro Donati told silicon.com.
Donati is head of the advanced mission concepts and technologies office at the European Space Agency's (ESA) Space Operations Centre at Darmstadt, Germany - the hub from where the agency manages 15 in-orbit satellites and is getting ready for 11 future satellite missions.
When it comes to spacecraft, design reliability - and not bleeding edge technology - is the watchword, with onboard chips having to undergo extensive testing to prove their robustness and compatibility with the spacecraft's onboard software.
Each of its computer chips has to be "hardened" to protect it from the high-energy radiation that permeates outer space, a complex process that means the newest processors are almost never used onboard spacecraft.
Space exploration agencies have good reason for favouring robust chips over high-performance processors. Firstly, it ensures the safety both of the crew and the highly expensive spacecraft that took years to build; and secondly to avoid having to fix kit onboard, which is tricky when a spacecraft is 200 miles up in orbit, and nearly impossible when it's millions of miles from the Earth.
"A spacecraft is not accessible - once it is launched it is there, so you have to be extremely sure that things work," said Donati.
Upgrading computing hardware is another task that is normally...