We already know what microgravity could potentially do to the human body, but what about artificial brains?
ESA is going to find out with the Chimera experiment on its GomX-4B mission (which seeks to test satellite radio links and micropropulsion) that will find out whether computers made for Earth are wired for an environment nearly devoid of gravity and bombarded with space radiation. Though droids and advanced alien tech have invaded sci-fi movies, we actually don’t know much about how clearly “off-the-shelf” computer innards that are designed more for cubicles than cubesats are able to process things out there.
“There’s an increasing push to use more off-the-shelf parts in orbit because they are theoretically cheaper and more capable than space-designed parts, but there are question marks over their reliability,” said Tomasz Szewczyk, a scientist on the Chimera team.
On board GomX-4B, which was recently launched by Danish company GomSpace, is the kind of electronics board you might remember from your high school science fair. It measures only 10 x 10 cm and has 12 computer flash memories—that’s three examples of four different types—and cost ESA next to nothing. The multiple backups are there because manufacturing differences in two or more of what is technically the same part could mean drastically different reactions.
The space agency wants to know how each type of memory can hold up against blasts of high-energy charged solar particles (particularly alpha particles) and any other killer radiation coming at it from deep space.
We know that “bit flip”-induced memory errors can be caused by interaction with these particles, but even the simulations done on terra firma just aren’t enough. Computer chips made to think for spacecraft can record how a dozen memories perform, but this?
“ESA missions have already been using a lot of different off-the-shelf parts, certainly across the last two decades,” Chimera computer scientist Gianluca Furano said. “All the mass memory of currently flying missions is made up of purely commercial flash devices, for instance.”
Not only could the same flash drive you can get at Best Buy could be flying on a satellite somewhere, but there are computer parts no one has even figured out how to modify for space. Space parts are also typically several generations behind those you don’t have to be an astronaut or rocket scientist to access, and upcoming missions need them sooner than human flashes of genius can strike. This is why we have to work with what we’ve got, so long as it undergoes a battery of tests. ESA plans to rethink commercial parts by joining forces with manufacturers and figuring out methods that would work for applications beyond Earth.
“The more knowledge we have of how these parts behave in space operations, then the more we can develop effective countermeasures,” noted Gianluca.
Does that mean you could (theoretically) use your laptop on the ISS without it crashing? Probably not, but maybe someone will figure that out by the time we’re ready for Mars.