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At the heart of every successful space mission is a sophisticated and capable computer system.

In the 1960s, relatively basic computing systems took humankind to the moon. More recently, the Parker probe has reached the scorching outskirts of our Sun, and the Voyager probes have left our solar system completely. With each successive generation of space probe, of course, computers have followed the long march of Moore’s law toward smaller, faster and cheaper systems.

But, the question remains: which kind of computing system will best serve humankind’s future, more ambitious space explorations?

Even for earthly applications, it can be challenging to develop computers that are the right size, weight, power, and cost. Often one of these desirable features are achieved at the expense of another. For example, more powerful computing systems tend be less energy efficient.

“In space processing applications, these tradeoffs are even more critical, where large volumes of data need to be processed within strict execution time and power consumption constraints,” explains Michael Cannizzaro, a pre-doctoral fellow at the NSF Center for Space, High-Performance, and Resilient Computing (NSF-SHREC).

Cannizzaro has been studying and comparing different computing architectures for space applications, and has narrowed in on a choice. As part of his Masters thesis completed this past summer, he is recommending that RISC-V—which has been gaining much traction recently—could be an attractive option for future space missions. Although his work is not yet published, it won a Best Paper award at the 2021 IEEE Space Computing Conference.

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