US Looking to Put More Powerful Flexible Microchips in Space

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Mars Pathfinder Chip A standard microprocessor has its circuits hard-wired into it, and serves a specific purpose such as image compression or video streaming. In contrast, field programmable gate array (FPGA) computer chips stepped onto the stage in the mid-1980s, and can be reprogrammed to perform multiple functions. These capabilities come with a significant price tag for up-front development, with successive manufactured copies costing a few cents apiece. The Missile Defense Agency is currently supporting an effort to update this technology for use by the military and NASA in space’s hostile and radiation-heavy environment. In 1996, for instance, NASA had an FPGA chip with an 8,000 logic gate capacity. Current requirements and standards involve 1-2 million logic gates… The US Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, Air Force Research Laboratory space Vehicles Directorate, NASA, XILINX, and Actel Corp. are all at work on the $15-20 million project. The new chip will follow a similar pattern to previous chips: they will draw on existing commercial expertise and designs, make improvements in key areas, then eventually transition some of the technology back to the commercial market. The US Department of Defense Transformation site has a more detailed article on this subject.

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