It may seem obvious, but computers on Earth are much faster than those in space.
That's why researchers at the University of Florida and Honeywell Aerospace said this week that they are developing a new, speedier PC for space missions, up to 100 times faster than current computing systems sent into orbit. If delivered as promised, NASA will test the computer on an unmanned ST8 rocket mission in February 2009.
"To explore space and to support Earth and space science, there is a great need for much more processing power in space," Alan George, an engineering professor at University of Florida and lead on the project, said in a statement.
The challenge for engineers will be to develop a PC with a protective layer that can repel cosmic radiation outside Earth's atmosphere, while not slowing the PC's performance. As it stands now, computing systems used on satellites and space probes can easily collect scientific data while in orbit, but they lack speed to transmit the data to ground stations. "That means scientists are very limited in how much science they can do," said John Samson, the principal investigator for the project at Honeywell.
The UF-Honeywell researchers plan to retrofit the PC's software, rather than harden its the physical components, to protect it against radiation--in a design they call Dependable Multiprocessor. According to the researchers, the goal is to develop a PC that can cope with radiation from solar flares by adapting to the event. For example, the enigeers are using algorithm-based techniques to detect and correct processing errors.
George said: "To be autonomous is to require a lot of computation, and until now, conventional space processing technologies have been incapable of high-performance computing."
The project is funded by NASAÂ’s New Millennium Program and the Florida High Technology Corridor Council.