Somehow, I doubt my PC would be a candidate for space travel. Only last week my entire system hung for a good five minutes while Windows 10 told me I had an update ready to install. If I had been in orbit, that would certainly have scared me a little. Luckily, it prompted this worthwhile article, where we’ll look at how far we’ve come with computing in space, and the type of computers used by NASA, Blue Origin and Space-X.
If you haven’t heard the anecdotal facts about the first moon landings, then you’re going to have your mind blown right now. You probably already know that your smartphone is much more powerful than the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) – the computer that took Neil and Buzz to the moon. The AGC had a total of 2048 words of memory which was designed to store “temporary results”. When power was lost, this data was also lost. For the uninitiated, this is referred to as RAM (Random Access Memory). Each of the 2048 words contained 16 binary digits or bits, and a bit could be a 0 or a 1. To round this up in simple terms, the AGC had 32,768 bits of RAM memory. One single alphabetical character – say an “A” or a “B” – will require approximately 8 bits to be stored in RAM.
The Apollo Guidance Computer also had a whopping 72KB of ROM (Read Only Memory), equivalent to 589,824 bits. ROM is not able to be changed once it has been written.
When we compare this to the latest DDR4 RAM, one stick of 8GB RAM is approximately 64,000,000,000 bits. 64 billion bits. That’s over a million times more RAM than the AGC.
These incredible feats of human ingenuity still boggle the mind, when you consider the technology available was used to travel through the universe to another planet, with a computer that was about twice as powerful as an NES console.
On the subject of NASA’s innovation, we have to also remember that their dedicated engineers and scientists gave us some of the technology we take for granted today. The humble computer mouse, camera phones, portable computers, high-power solar cells and even wireless headphones were all developed by NASA.
What Computer Does NASA Use?
There are two answers to this question, because there are computers used for space travel on the actual spacecraft, then there are the computers used back on Earth used for guidance and calculating the algorithms that keep them up there.
Houston IT Support? We Have A Problem.
Pleiades Supercomputer - Credit: NASA Archives
The image above is a photograph of the Pleiades Supercomputer, the beast responsible for modelling the scenarios for firing humans off our giant rock into space, and hopefully keeping them up there long enough to do their job and return safely back to terra firma.
“Pleiades, one of the world's most powerful supercomputers, represents NASA's state-of-the-art technology for meeting the agency's supercomputing requirements, enabling NASA scientists and engineers to conduct modeling and simulation for NASA projects. This distributed-memory SGI/HPE ICE cluster is connected with InfiniBand in a dual-plane hypercube technology.
The system contains the following types of Intel Xeon processors: E5-2680v4 (Broadwell), E5-2680v3 (Haswell), E5-2680v2 (Ivy Bridge), and E5-2670 (Sandy Bridge). Pleiades is named after the astronomical open star cluster of the same name.” – NASA
Does NASA Use Windows or Linux?
Pleiades runs on SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, which is due to be updated to Red Hat Enterprise Linux this year. As for the other computer systems in and around NASA’s many missions, from the ground control to ISS laptops, Linux is used due to its stability. A well recycled joke is that astronauts use Apple Macs in space, but this is mere meme fodder.
Why do astronauts use Apple Macs in space?
Because they can’t open Windows
What Computers Do NASA Use?
There are numerous supercomputers in use at NASA’s many facilities, and the hardware and software used is constantly monitored to ensure it is at the bleeding edge of processing power and stability. In recent years, NASA has sought to upgrade their infrastructure with the launch of exploration mission, Artemis I, using a new Spacecraft Command and Control System (SCCS). When the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin the Artemis I mission, an incredible 100MB/s (100 megabytes per second) of data will be generated by the rocket, spacecraft, and ground support equipment.
"We're flying three vehicles in parallel – Orion spacecraft, ICPS, and SLS core stage – and SCCS needs to be able to communicate with all three simultaneously," Mike Van Houten said, the Launch Control System project manager in the Command, Control and Communications organization within EGS (Exploration Ground Systems) “While we're ‘talking’ with the spacecraft and vehicles, we're also receiving data from Kennedy’s ground systems – programmable logic controllers, subsystems in the field, and equipment on the mobile launcher.”
The SCCS is a combination of “custom-built software and off-the-shelf products” and was developed specifically to take charge of the processing and oversee launch operations for the Artemis missions. NASA’s EGS team and its lead contractor, Jacobs, completed the first round of tests in September '21 for the Artemis I launch.
Danny Zeto, Senior NTD overseeing the tests said, “Folks are still looking through the data In the next couple of weeks as the engineers continue to analyse and go through the data, we’ll go collect all those lessons learned and have a post-test tag up with the team to see what improvements we have both from an operational and technical perspective.”
There have been innumerable posts on Reddit asking how to build a PC that would rival or match NASA’s most powerful computers, but the closest you will ever get is a NASA themed PC build like Reddit user LSX_Nation created below.
Workstations and laptops, however, are pretty standard machines you would expect in any governmental environment. NASA Advanced Supercomputing (NAS) Division were in fact the first to link supercomputers and workstations together enabling distribution of computation and visualization, which is what we now call client/server.
The workstations at NASA’s facilities, and laptops used in the ISS are made by HP, IBM and Dell. The IBM ThinkPad is used predominantly on space shuttles, certified for use because they pass off-gas testing, radiation testing, thermal testing, fire and fire suppression tests.
“As the 20th century drew to a close, the only notebooks certified for long-term flight on the International Space Station (ISS) were the IBM ThinkPad 760XD and the 755C. Five 76OXDs and one additional 755C were placed on ISS during the May 1999 shuttle mission (STS-96), and another seven 76OXDs and one 755C were delivered on subsequent flights. (In 2003, IBM ThinkPad A31p computers were flown to the International Space Station for in-flight testing. The A31p is scheduled to become the new ISS Portable Computer System, replacing the ThinkPad 760XD.)” – IBM
What Computers Do SpaceX And Blue Origin Use?
While NASA is a U.S. Government agency that has a responsibility to report 99.99% of all their activity, private space programs such as SpaceX and Blue Origin can keep their cards close to their chest, and don’t often disclose anything that might slow them down in their space race.
Blue Origin Technology
Jeff Bezos is currently engaged in waging lawsuits against NASA after the agency “unjustly granted” a lunar lander contract to SpaceX, Elon Musk’s very own space program. Besides this legal drama, on October 13th 2021, Blue Origin launched its successful commercial space flight with none other than William Shatner as a passenger aboard New Shepard. While most people can see through the PR stunts and publicity furore, having Captain James Tiberius Kirk aboard New Shepard’s 18th launch was a pretty cool spectacle.
The technology used in the New Shepard is a cutting-edge system that is largely unquantifiable as far as specification, software and hardware used. We do know that the entire launch and flight mission of New Shepard NS-18 was completely controlled by the on-board computers, which fed data back to the launch and landing facility north of Van Horn, Texas, USA. The vehicle is fully autonomous, and every human in the capsule is a passenger; there are no pilots aboard the vehicle. The rocket is reusable and operates as a vertical take off and landing craft.
Screens inside the capsule display in-flight data and telemetry, updates and indicators for the passengers, but the hardware behind these panels on New Shepard is a mystery.
Mr. Musk is far more forthcoming with information on the technology behind their space program, and the technology used in the Falcon 9 - a partially reusable two-stage-to-orbit medium-lift launch vehicle – developed by SpaceX. Though we don’t know specifically which processors are used in Falcon 9, we do know that they use Linux and dual-core x86 processors in their equipment.
Crew Dragon uses three computers, with each processor checking the others for any redundancies or problems caused by radiation in-flight. If a “bit flip” occurs, where high-energy particles ejected by the sun cause a “0” to become a “1” in the processor/memory, the computer is rebooted and checked again by the other computers.
The systems aboard Crew Dragon do not use multicore capabilities of a processor, and instead perform each computation separately on the two cores, comparing results. The three flight computers with dual-core processors installed act as six independent computers which constantly verify the others’ calculations and computations.
All software for on-board systems, rocket simulator technology, communication software, flight control diagnostic tools and flight analysis software were developed by 35 engineers and are continuously analysed to find any redundancies or potential improvements.
SpaceX use “off-the-shelf” parts when they build their systems, and popular programming languages, which means their team are very familiar with every moving part and piece of code in the program. With extensive testing comes huge expense, and by having a lab filled with easily acquired parts and components, costs are reduced effectively in what could be a program with exponentially rising costs dependent on failure/success rates.
For workstations, HP ZBook laptops running Debian, Scientific Linux or Microsoft Windows 10 are used, and Linux systems are used as remote terminals for Command & Control MDM. Windows is also used for media, emails and other administrative/entertainment activities.
“April 8, 2016 was a big day in space travel. That’s when SpaceX successfully landed a rocket on an ocean platform. And that same mission delivered five HP ZBook 15 Mobile Workstations to the astronauts in the International Space Station” – HP
NASA/Chris Cassidy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The HP Zbook 15 mobile workstations were chosen for the mission because of their rugged and lightweight design. Astronauts used these HP laptops for command and control, experiments and to monitor health and wellbeing of the ISS crew.
In what reads like a deleted scene from the movie, Armageddon, the ZBook 15s were stowed on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. Falcon 9 carried Dragon, a freeflying spacecraft which was designed to deliver cargo to the ISS. Once the rocket and payload had broken through the earth’s atmosphere, travelling at supersonic speed, Dragon made the approach to the space station, where the space station crew utilised a 57.7ft robotic arm to reach out and grab the cargo.
The Future Of Computers In Space Exploration
As computers continue to push the boundaries in terms of performance, with each technological breakthrough from processor manufacturers to GPU companies, this opens up the potential for them to be used in space exploration.
When the Mercury capsule launched with astronaut Alan Shepard aboard in 1961, it was stacked with the latest technology, with some of it being developed by NASA themselves. Mercury, however, did not use a computer. The technology in 1961 was far too large to be used in such a confined space, so NASA opted for a system that was largely reliant on McDonnel Aircraft Corporation’s ability to keep it going in the right direction, and the immense computers on the ground to bring it back home safely.
Now, in 2021, computers are small enough to wear on your wrist, and complex equations and telemetry can be processed by a computer that can fit in a shoebox. The progress made over the last sixty years has enabled NASA, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin to enter their own space race together, using the same components you can purchase for your home computer.
Private companies can fast track their space programs and create spacecrafts and vehicles with the aid of programmers and developers from many different backgrounds. For instance, SpaceX like to hire game developers due to their ability to code complex physics and algorithms.
"We actually hire a lot of our best software engineers out of the gaming industry," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told Fast Company. "In gaming there’s a lot of smart engineering talent doing really complex things.