You’d think a spacecraft capable of orbiting the Earth would be equipped with cutting-edge technology. In actuality, NASA’s Orion, which completed its historic test flight on Friday, is run by a computer that’s not much smarter than the phone in your pocket.
Computer World has all the amazing details, but it basically boils down to reliability. Rather than dealing with new and unproven technology, NASA is more worried about creating a reliable system that can handle the perils of space, including the incredible G forces and gobs of radiation. One engineer said the processor inside Orion is about 12 years old—an IBM PowerPC 750FX single-core processor—which is absolutely ancient by today’s standards.
“It’s not about the speed as much as the ruggedness and the reliability,” one NASA engineer told Computer World. Another engineer added that switching to a newer system would be too expensive.
NASA is actually accustomed to using older technology, but it’s a conscious decision. NASA’s Matt Lemke, deputy manager for Orion’s avionics, said the older processors are more capable of withstanding the radiation in space. Newer processors could fail, which would obviously be catastrophic for a space mission. The computer equipped by Curiosity used similar old technology, so NASA knows it works. Again, it’s reliable, so there’s little reason to upgrade.
Orion isn’t all old school, however. Lemke said the spacecraft is using new technology, such as Time-Triggered Ethernet, for critical data transfers.
“Orion is not incredibly high tech, but compared to what else is flying in space, it’s leading edge,” said Lemke. However, he admitted it’s definitely no more state-of-the-art than what you could purchase at Best Buy.