NASA is planning a huge computing upgrade for its next space missions

Photo of the Southern Ring Nebula from the James Webb telescope
(Image credit: NASA)

NASA has selected Microchip Technology to develop a High-Performance Spaceflight Computing (HPSC)  processor it says will provide at least 100 times the computational capacity of current spaceflight computers. 

NASA's spaceflight computing may be in dire need of an upgrade, as current systems "were developed almost 30 years ago" according to Wesley Powell, NASA’s principal technologist for advanced avionics, and "future NASA missions demand significantly increased onboard computing capabilities and reliability".

Microchip Technology, based in Chandler, Arizona, specializes in the manufacture of microcontroller, mixed-signal, analog, and Flash-IP integrated circuits and has been in operation for over 30 years.

How will the project work?

Microchip will work to design and deliver the HPSC processor over the next three years, with the goal of employing the processor on future lunar and planetary exploration missions.

The work will take place under a $50 million firm-fixed-price contract, with Microchip contributing significant research and development costs to complete the project.

Microchip’s new processor architecture reportedly offers the flexibility for the processing power to "ebb and flow" depending on current operational requirements, meaning certain processing functions can also be turned off when not in use, reducing power consumption. 

NASA says the capability will save a large amount of energy and improve overall computing efficiency for space missions. 

The new processor could have its own applications down here on earth as well.

NASA says the new tech may also be useful for commercial systems on Earth that require similar mission-critical edge computing needs as space missions, and need to be able to safely continue operations if one component of the system fails. 

These potential applications apparently include industrial automation, time-sensitive ethernet data transmission, artificial intelligence, and even Internet of Things gateways, which bridge various communication technologies.

High-Performance computing is obviously something that's on NASA's radar, as it recently deployed Azure Quantum as part of a project to reduce the time it takes to transmit instructions between spacecraft from hours to just minutes.

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Will McCurdy has been writing about technology for over five years. He has a wide range of specialities including cybersecurity, fintech, cryptocurrencies, blockchain, cloud computing, payments, artificial intelligence, retail technology, and venture capital investment. He has previously written for AltFi, FStech, Retail Systems, and National Technology News and is an experienced podcast and webinar host, as well as an avid long-form feature writer.