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Obsolete chips in space

How many people are still cranking along with a 12-year-old computer at work? If that's your situation, you might have a bit more sympathy for the astronauts trying to cope with the computer problems on the international space station. The system that controls the station's orientation as well as other key functions on the Russian side of the outpost basically uses 12-year-old chips that were designed using a 21-year-old architecture and sent into orbit seven years ago.

NBC News space analyst James Oberg pointed out today that the Russian computers were actually built in Germany under contract with the European Space Agency. And if you delve further into the origins of the system, you'll find that the computers use radiation-hardened ERC32 three-chip processors that came from the factory in 1995 or so. The chips had to go through a grueling round of tests, during which some serious floating-point glitches were identified and fixed (PDF file). Then they were incorporated into the DMS-R computers that went up with the Russian-built Zvezda module in 2000.

Go another level deeper, and you'll find that the ERC32 chips are based on the SPARC V7 chip architecture, which was pioneered by Sun Microsystems and came out in 1986. The chips are way obsolete by now - even the European Space Agency acknowledges that - and the company that made them was absorbed long ago by Atmel Corp., based in San Jose, Calif.

The software running on those chips has a California connection as well: It's written on top of the VxWorks operating system, produced by Wind River Systems in Alameda, Calif. VxWorks, a Unix-like real-time programming platform, is a popular choice for spacecraft software: It was used on the 1997 Mars Pathfinder mission as well as NASA's Stardust probe and the still-operating Mars Exploration Rovers.

So there are at least three lessons to be learned from digging into the genealogy of space station gadgetry: One is that it takes a long lead time to get hardware into space, at least the way governmental space agencies do it. Another is that space technology is becoming increasingly international. And the third lesson is that you shouldn't be so quick to make fun of Russian space technology. If you follow the trail  far enough, you just might end up back in Silicon Valley.