VME’s “Grandkids” and the Final Frontier

It IS rocket science.

With the recent passing of John Glenn, the first United States astronaut to orbit the earth, it’s time to take a step back and look at the progression of technology with a bit of awe at the advancements made over his lifetime. The space race began as a competition to put a man on the moon and progressed to communications and military technology enabled by satellites, to today’s launch of CubeSats and even smaller femtosats with a price tag that’s within reach of the average middle class “maker.” NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos are not the only ones launching satellites. Arianespace launched 11 flights in 2016. SpaceX launched 8 flights in 2016. Space flight is no longer solely a government endeavor, as advances in technology have brought cost and weight down dramatically.

Figure 1: The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, which the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) manages. (Photo courtesy JPL.)

Figure 1: The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, which the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) manages. (Photo courtesy JPL.)

Space will always be a frontier for humans, since we require air to breathe, a certain range of temperatures to live in, and shielding from radiation—all of the things that Earth has provided for eons. Space exploration, space flight, and colonizing space with satellites and space stations require rocket science and high-performance computing. Part of the technology expansion includes the descendants of Versa Module Eurocard (VME), which include VPX, after which OpenVPX was started, and upon which the fairly recent SpaceVPX is based.

Rugged backplanes that can withstand the extreme vibration of take-off and provide high-performance computing need to be small and light-weight. Based on the VITA 65 OpenVPX standard using RapidIO (RIO) as the protocol, SpaceVPX is an ideal candidate. Interoperability and robustness for the harsh environment of space characterize SpaceVPX. As does affordability in leveraging existing modern standards, which potentially enable Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) module use, and flexibility combined with cost effectiveness targeting systems that crave critically rapid throughput and low latency. SpaceVPX has a goal of balancing an acceptable level of fault tolerance and a reasonable level of compatibility with existing VPX components. It creates a space version of profiles for slots, modules, and backplanes.

Computational Challenges Multiply

Flight trajectories are optimized to use the lowest amount of propellant and to arrive at a moving destination, an act akin to throwing a dart (traveling faster than the speed of sound) at a moving target. Human life support systems, communications over thousands of miles, and navigating both the gravitational pull of Earth and the vacuum of space create computational challenges that continue to increase in complexity as we dream of colonizing Mars. SpaceVPX using RIO has the potential to make space missions more reliable with higher-performance as refinement and adoption launch another advancement into space. It’s a good time to be alive.

LynnetteReese_115Lynnette Reese is Executive Editor, Embedded Systems Engineering, and has been working in various roles as an electrical engineer for over two decades. She is interested in open source software and hardware, the maker movement, and in increasing the number of women working in STEM so she has a greater chance of talking about something other than football at the water cooler.

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