February 28, 2023 — Southwest Research Institute is evaluating the next generation of fast and reliable microprocessors used in embedded spaceflight systems. During the IEEE Aerospace Conference March 4-11 in Big Sky, Montana, SwRI engineers will present a pair of research papers comparing legacy spaceflight computers to new technology that performs more complex tasks using less power.
“Conventional spaceflight technology is larger, heavier and more power-hungry than today’s microprocessors, which translates to bigger spacecraft, larger solar arrays and more batteries with complex thermal control — all of which can be very expensive to launch,” said Patrick Saenz, a computer scientist in SwRI’s Intelligent Systems Division. “Our latest research is exploring much faster computers with a smaller footprint.”
SwRI engineers determined that newer microprocessors built on “instruction set architectures” could outperform conventional spaceflight technology under certain configurations in a laboratory. The research opens the door to embedding space systems with the same microprocessors used in cell phones and other Earth-based electronics.
The first project evaluated open-source reduced instruction set computers (RISC-V or “risk five”). Among other findings, researchers determined that some space-ready circuits, known as Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs), were incompatible with faster RISC-V soft-core processors. Other FPGAs, however, successfully operated with RISC-V and even outperformed conventional processors. SwRI presents the research in a paper titled, “RISC-V Processors for Spaceflight Embedded Platforms.”
In the second project, SwRI evaluated the performance and power consumption of an Advanced RISC Machines (ARM) processor. The ARM processor outperformed a legacy processor with more than five times the processing power, using a fraction of the energy. SwRI presents the results in a paper titled, “ARMing the Next Generation of Embedded Platforms through Processor Reusability.”
“The dynamic power management features offered by the ARM processor can provide finer tuning of power utilization throughout a mission’s lifetime,” said Kayla Henderson, an SwRI embedded systems software engineer.
The researchers say RISC-V and ARM can also improve software development for space missions. Legacy space systems typically require custom software that cannot be used for other space missions. The efficiency of the newer technology can improve software interoperability, saving time and implementation costs.
A recent push toward modernizing space technology is driven by the growth in the spaceflight industry and demand for faster computing.
“Historically, we had to trade processor capability for design reliability,” said Patrick Phelan, an engineer who specializes in space avionics and telemetry data in SwRI’s Space Systems Division. “We’re at a point now where we need to maximize both aspects to meet clients’ demands.”
The typical 32-bit processors used in spacecraft — considered clunky by the high-speed Internet standards on Earth — are tried-and-true and hardened to withstand radiation and extreme cold while operating in the zero-gravity vacuum of space. Next, SwRI plans to perform radiation testing on RISC-V and ARM processor-based computing systems to confirm viability for deployment under harsh spaceflight conditions.