NASA Embraces Commercial Electronics

Several experiments aboard the International Space Station are testing whether the space agency can move beyond traditional rad-hard components.

Spaceborne Computer

If all goes according to plan, a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship returning from the International Space Station this fall will deliver back to Earth and waiting engineers a pair of servers that will have flown aboard the orbiting laboratory and testbed for nearly a year. The idea is to simulate a nearly year-long trip to Mars and determine whether the off-the-shelf hardware can hack it in deep space.

Meanwhile, the space agency is readying an ARM processor core design as the foundation of its next generation of space electronics. It has also examined the effects of radiation on memory chips.

Under a NASA project called Spaceborne Computer, Hewlett Packard Enterprise engineers supplied a pair of two-socket servers installed on the space station. (An identical ground-based pair serves as a “control group” for the experiment.) The HPE servers were launched last August to assess whether NASA can eventually shift from expensive radiation-hardened components to commercial hardware that is proving increasingly resistant to the damaging effects of ionizing radiation.

Radiation hazards associated with a trip to Mars — at least 35 million miles at its closest approach to Earth — would likely be far greater than those in Earth’s orbit. Nevertheless, HPE engineers note that current commercial electronic components far exceed current radiation hardening requirements for the space station.

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