NASA to test adaptable computer

NASA officials recently selected a computing system that can adjust to different environments as one of four technologies to be tested in space as part of a 2008 launch.

Space agency officials narrowed the pool from 10 candidates to four, as part of the New Millennium Programs Space Technology 8 (ST8) Mission. The purpose of the launch is to validate each technology in an experimental setting before deploying the pieces on actual science missions.

NASA selected Honeywell International for a so-called Environmentally Adaptive Fault Tolerant Computing System, built from off-the-shelf components, as the mission's lone information technology project. Honeywell competed against NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Boeing for the mission's computing slot, whose experiment cost is pegged at $10 million.

Dean Brenner, program manager for the satellite program under Honeywell's Defense and Space Electronic System, said the objective of this mission is to test the use of commercial, off-the-shelf computers in space for six months. "That's always been a long quest, in terms of getting high performance with lower costs," he said.

To protect against radiation in space, off-the-shelf computers rely on redundancy, but those techniques can reduce the system's efficiency by a third or more, Brenner said. Honeywell researchers designed a system that can sense the environment and adjust its levels of redundancy accordingly.

"You use sensor systems and adaptable computing to control the redundancy schemes, so that at times when the environment provides it," the system can operate at full capacity, Brenner said.

ST8's other technology projects are an ultra-lightweight solar power array designed to provide more power than existing solar power designs, a graphite mast for solar sail propulsion and a temperature control system that would reduce the need for extra heaters on spacecraft.

The space agency estimated ST8's total cost at $100 million. Previous validation missions included Deep Space 1, Deep Space 2 and Earth Observing 1, at costs of $80.1 million, $32.5 million and $194.3 million, respectively.

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