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Iranian scientist pioneers deep space freeze programming

Here on Earth, we think that temperature extremes involve moving from summer in the Middle East (regularly up to 50 degrees) right through to winter in the Arctic (regularly down to -50 degrees). But when you move into space, the numbers change. Work by an Iranian scientist has pushed the boundaries of what we know is possible a little further at the cold end of the spectrum. KitGuru puts on an extra vest to investigate.

Across the globe, every day, millions and millions of people change the contents of flash memory. Whether that’s by saving a conversation with a friend on your iPhone 5 or taking a photo with your Digital DLR, it’s all about changing what that memory holds. Similarly, if you wanted to write a program and have it work/store/process in flash memory – that’s also fairly straightforward. But what happens when the whole system you want to program with is in deep space? Strange things are known to happen in the cold, but with modern components etc, what exactly will fail and when?

Most of the hardware that’s launched into space is pre-programmed and hardened against the elements and radiation. Here on Earth, we think nothing of using FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) to create brand new programming as we go. It’s the flexible/programmable nature of these devices that has meant a single event can come along and upset them, rendering them useless. This situation actually has its own acronym, SEU.

As the field develops, companies and explorers alike will have a better understanding of what FPGAs can and can’t do in extreme environments. Now, following extensive research at B&A Engineering in California, Principal Engineer Alireza Bakhshi has established some boundaries for existing programmable systems in extreme cold, using a commercially available Xilinx FPGA.

His key findings included:-

  • Programming instabilities start at around -110 degrees C
  • It was still possible to do some reconfiguring down to -150 degrees C using the JTAG (standard connection) port
  • The flash memory on board appeared to fail in a big way around -130 degrees and it was not possible to get the system to accurately hold new instructions at that temperature
  • Once testing at low temperature was complete, everything was allowed to return to room temperature – at which point the FPGA was tested and shown to work

It is hoped that work by Alireza and others in his field can offer NASA, and other space agencies, improved flexibility and recovery solutions – as well as reduced costs – in the future.

Low temperature expert Alireza Bakhshi shown here with a Xilinx 5 and plenty of the LN2 that scientists of all ages & abilities love

KitGuru says: One of the key challenges in putting systems into space is that the very advances we make here on Earth, under the protective blanket of our atmosphere, also make space travel harder. Specifically, the constant need to shrink electronics, means that the ‘Single Event Upset’ is easier to achieve in space. Work by people like Alireza and the future products team at Xilinx will help build a better future in space for all of us.

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