The NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory has selected Microsoft Technology Inc. to develop a new HPSC space processor. This new computer will provide at least 100 times the computing capacity of current devices used in active space missions. The contract provides funding of $50 million and is part of a project initiated by NASA in 2018.
Microsoft will develop and deploy a new processor in about three years ' time, planning to use it for future lunar and planetary missions; the new architecture will improve the overall efficiency of the data processing required for such missions and allow for the scaling of computing capacity as needed; for example, a mission to the surface of Mars requires large computing capacity and speed at landing stages, but fewer computations and capabilities are required for surface movements or on-board lander/level labs.
The Microsoft processor will offer the ability to adjust computing capacity to the requirements of the operations to be performed, as well as to shut down some functions when they are not used, reducing energy consumption. By saving energy and improving computation efficiency, the chip will be useful in various space mission situations, including landing in difficult terrain, mission performance management, autonomous driving, navigation and management, and much more.
The difficulty of creating a computer suitable for work in space
Radiation in space damages electronic parts, causing malfunctions and miscalculations, and ultimately final failure, so the design of the new processor must be even more reliable and have greater resistance than the current processors, such as RAD750. The latter has an average failure rate of more than 4.3 million hours.
In addition, because of the time it takes to transmit signals from the Earth to remote areas of space, many manoeuvres must be carried out without Earth control. According to Microsoft, the new computing platform will provide a full Ethernet network for transmission, advanced computations for the placement of artificial intelligence and machine learning programmes useful for autonomous manoeuvres, and will increase productivity and resistance, all based on a new, energy-efficient security architecture.
In the Apollo 11 mission, which first brought mankind to the surface of the Moon, there was the first ever "portable" computer called AGC . The PC was based on a processor with only 2 MHz and a total of 72 KB of RAM memory. Since 2005, some of the most important space missions, such as the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter probe or the Perseverance jockey, have been operated by the RAD750 of BAE Systems, an on-board computer equipped with a processor with a tactical frequency of up to 200 MHz and able to withstand up to 200000 rad at between -55 °C and 125 °C.
The new Microsoft processor will exceed its predecessors in computing capacity and energy use, an important step for the future of American space missions, a step of a generation that is ripe, because most modern space computers are based on technology almost 30 years ago.