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Why Legacy? It Works

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By Allan Holmes September 28, 2010

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NASA has taken some hits for having decades-old computer technology running the shuttle program and the International Space station. For example, the space agency uses some technology that the moon programs relied on in the 1960s and the space station uses processors more than two decades old. Sounds like a typical government operation? Well, no, when you have scientists explain it.

A silicon.com article reports:

When it comes to spacecraft, design reliability - and not bleeding edge technology - is the watchword, with onboard chips having to undergo extensive testing to prove their robustness and compatibility with the spacecraft's onboard software.

. . . "A spacecraft is not accessible - once it is launched it is there, so you have to be extremely sure that things work," said [Alessandro] Donati, [head of the advanced mission concepts and technologies office at the European Space Agency's Space Operations Centre at Darmstadt, Germany].

Upgrading computing hardware is another task that is normally straightforward on the ground but that becomes an expensive and time-consuming job in space.

Simply put, any upgrade or new technology has to work from the beginning -- always, or else. That's why it takes nearly three years to do a software upgrade. Everything has to be tested and tested again.

But NASA plans to upgrade processors on the space station next year - "the station's first major avionics computer redesign in the 12 years it has been in orbit," silicon.com reports.

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