Machine Design

Supercomputing satellite goes into orbit

A recently launched DoE satellite, Cibola, carries a supercomputer that processes data from onboard sensors.

The idea is to minimize the amount of information beamed back to Earth, thus saving time and transmit power.

Though relatively small, (24 24 38 in. and 350 lb), the satellite will carry a several devices that need to be validated for space flight, including a new power supply, a series of inflatable antennas, deployable booms, a new type of launch-vehicle separation system, and a high-density pack of AA lithium-ion batteries. The payload has been under development for the past six years at the Los Alamos National Laboratory

The satellite computer is based on off-the-shelf, field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA) from Xilinx Inc., San Jose, which can be reprogrammed and operate 100 times faster than computers currently certified for space flight. Successful use of FPGAs will make it possible to reprogram satellites after they are launched. Cibola will also explore lightning, ionospheric disturbances, and other sources of atmospheric noise in the RF range.

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