(Computers that is…)
While watching a myriad of space shuttle launches on a NASA program, I wondered to myself what special considerations needed to be made computer-wise for the vast emptiness engulfing our planet. Here’s what I discovered: (For added effect, please loop the following music in the background: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZyNdzLP_Xw and you’re welcome in advance).
NASA’s primary manufacturing partner is Lenovo and have been using them since 1995 when they blasted off with a ThinkPad 775 that came with a blazing fast 3.3V Intel 486 DX4 processor running at 100MHz, a whopping 8MB of RAM, and a senses-shattering double speed CD-ROM drive. If you ever feel jealous of the sheer raw power, remember that a current cellphone has (and this is an exact calculation I did using all kinds of math) over a bajillionty-five times more power than that. It could probably play Myst though. But ick and why?
Some of the tests NASA laptops have to pass before they lift off include radiation testing, off-gas testing, thermal testing, fire & fire suppression. As a result, most space missions use radiation hardened computer chips. “Rad-hard” chips are unlike ordinary chips in many ways. For example, they contain extra transistors that take more energy to switch on and off so that abundant cosmic rays can’t trigger them so easily and cause havoc. No word yet on the viability of the first Space LAN party unfortunately, but you’d have to find a way to dehydrate both Mountain Dew and Doritos, THEN get some of the world’s top minds to figure out how to remove Cheeto stains from a space suit, so first thing’s first.
Looking into cooling, we all know that most systems rely on gravity and fans to assist in keeping things cozy for their heat-generating parts. At first blush, you’d assume that since space is so cold (3k or about -270.3c, the only heat being from residual radiation from the big bang and even that is slowly cooling down), that you’d quickly become the overclocking champion of the galaxy. In reality however, there are so few particles for heat to transfer to in space that it’s extremely hard to cool anything. Consider a CPU fan blowing air on Earth to cool. What’s it going to blow in space? A whole lot of nothing which will move none of the heat away from the system. CPUs that aren’t in the internal atmosphere of the shuttles are cooled using evaporation or sublimation via a heat pipe. They use heat pipes because conduction still works (albeit less effectively) in space, just not convection.
And that’s just a handful of what’s out there! If you’re interested, here’s some further reading and sources for what I went over:
If you’re not interested, Neil DeGrasse Tyson is very sad at you right now.