Scientists from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., are creating a powerful, efficient, and reliable onboard computer that will guide spacecraft beyond our solar system. The brainchild of NASA scientists, this low-energy, high-performance machine will collect, store, and process enormous amounts of data.
At the same time, it will command many inflight operations now directed by mission control. The result: a spacecraft that gathers more data, costs less to operate, and can travel vast distances to explore uncharted regions of the universe.
"Creating software that makes commercially available components reliable in the presence of radiation is key to the success of this program," says Robert Ferraro, a JPL scientist and manager of NASA's Remote Exploration and Experimentation (REE) Project.
Today's computers face program execution errors caused by cosmic radiation. REE engineers are developing software that runs off-the-shelf computers and corrects radiation-induced errors without intervention from mission control.
The development of inflight computers using commercially available hardware and fault-tolerant software will produce significant, even revolutionary, changes to the way NASA explores the heavens. "In the past," Mr. Ferraro says, "spacecraft collected data and nothing more. With an onboard computer that intelligently manipulates data, scientists can program the spacecraft to carry out specific experiments."
It takes at least 20 minutes for an instruction from mission control to reach a spacecraft near Mars, confirm execution of the command, and return the instrument's status back to Earth. A spacecraft cannot operate in-sync with commands from mission control because of the lengthy round-trip delay.
A Martian rover equipped with an REE computer could roll across a frigid desert of red stone and dust, searching for evidence of ancient life and paving the way for human exploration.
"We could solve a lot of problems if spacecraft had an onboard computer that could collect, analyze and reduce data," Ferraro says. "A more powerful computer could analyze concentrated data and transmit the most valuable information back to Earth. Scientists could focus on their experiments instead of the challenges of collecting and retrieving information from instruments located millions of miles away."
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