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Space Probe to Sport 'transforming' Hardware


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Earth-like planet

Reconfiguring on the fly could be the future for space probes.

Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / C.Lisse (Johns Hopkins)

A new satellite, planned for launch in 2012, will contain a flight computer built with field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) that can be completely reconfigured in space, enabling the probe to switch functions on demand. The satellite's computer, developed by Toshinori Kuwahara, from the Institute of Space Systems at the University of Stuttgart, Germany, will feature cameras, multispectral imagers, thermal-infrared imagers, star trackers, global positioning system receivers, and sea-surface-height sensing radar. Using various combinations of these devices requires different computing configurations, both to operate the devices and to process the collected data, which limits normal probes to only one or two tasks.

However, Kuwahara's probe uses FPGAs, which contain logic gates that can be connected and disconnected by programmable switches. Switching the function of the probe would only require retrieving the relevant logic gate connection settings from the computer's memory, or sending new settings to the probe.

Kuwahara is still looking for a way to protect the FPGA circuits from charged cosmic ray particles, which can interfere with digital data and create programming errors. To avoid these problems, Kuwahara plans to use multiple back-up FPGAs and a program to detect which FPGAs are working correctly.

From New Scientist
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