The processor of the future: the power behind the space computer
Does anyone remember that joke? That the American astronauts sank millions into a special anti-gravity pen to use in space whereas the cosmonauts just used a pencil? I do, and it was before I really truly appreciated the technology used that sent people into space, and the leaps we had to do in order to get there.
You see, it was more than just a punchline. Long debunked as a myth, it was in fact down to an innovation by an investor after pencils were found to be potentially flammable in space conditions. The Soviet Union even ended up ordering these so-called “space pens” (or Fisher pens, named after their inventor) for their own space programme. When I read about this, I remember feeling a little humbled by the incredible advancements the space programmes have now granted us. A lot of people put the space race down to a mere one-up-man-ship between America and the Soviet Union, but ho boy, is it so much more than that. The smartphone you’re probably reading this on? You have it because of the space race. No, I’m not even kidding. We went from flying in wood and canvas to setting our feet on the Moon in just sixty-six years. People would have been alive to witness both momentous events, and I think that’s something we humans can do that makes me feel genuinely proud.
So why the history lesson? Well, it turns out NASA continues to innovate, with their newly revealed processor that will power their High-Performance Spaceflight Computer (HPSC). The product of a collaboration with SiFive and Microchip, the processor will feature twelve RISC-V cores and is expected to offer over a hundred times more the performance of its predecessor the BAE RAD750.
This new processor should provide enough horsepower to support next generation autonomous rovers, spaceflight guidance and communication technologies. RISC-V-based processors are far less common than either Arm- or x86- based chips, but they’re definitely gaining momentum in their field. Manufacture giants China is very interested in utilizing the processors to minimise its reliance on Western semiconductor companies. Intel is also interested after seeing the power difference between the RISC-V and the x86. So maybe your next laptop will be powered by the same processors that power the HPSC.
NASA has seemed to see the potential this new chip offers and sees the long-term benefits of its use in the next few decades. The one designed for NASA has four general-purpose RISC-V cores and eight specialised X280 vector-processing cores which help to expand the RISC-V and allows for the running of application code. It really seems like we are at the start line for future technologies. Director of Technology/Maturation Niki Werkheiser says of the RISC-V: “This cutting-edge spaceflight processor will have a tremendous impact on our future space missions and even technologies here on Earth… This effort will amplify existing spacecraft capabilities and enable new ones and could ultimately be every future space mission, all benefitting from more capable flight computing.”