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Orion's lesson for IT: Test your systems, then test again (and again)

Sharon Gaudin | Dec. 11, 2014
When NASA's new spacecraft, Orion, made its maiden voyage last week, it completed its successful 4.5-hour trip running on a 12-year-old processor and a computer that's far from state-of-the-art.

Lemke said telemetry sent from Orion during its flight showed that the computers withstood the blasts of radiation.

Now, engineers are going through the data taken from the system while it was still on the ship that recovered it after splashdown in the Pacific ocean.

"As far as we can tell, the [computers] had no problems during the flight," said Lemke. "People are starting to look at all of that data in detail.... Now, we can see if there were any memory errors or any errors during Ethernet transmissions because of radiation. We're now looking at the next level of detail with the stored data. We'll look for any errors on any of those lines."

Engineers also are culling through data to figure out how well the new Time-Triggered Ethernet, or TTEthernet, system worked on the spacecraft. It was the first time the system, which offers a time-based guaranteed packet delivery, was used in space.

Orion used one basic Ethernet line for non-critical data transfers and three TTEthernet lines for all critical information, including navigation and instructions to fire the craft's engines.

Lemke and his team are trying to deduce how well all the data lines worked.

"That's one of the hardest things to figure out," he said. "We have multiple wires. Multiple planes of data. Did we have any kind of problem at all? You have to really dig into the data to find out."

NASA engineers are also in the process of building the computers that will be used in Orion's next test flight, scheduled for 2018. Lemke said they're using the same PowerPC 750FX processors, while trying to make the computer easier — and cheaper — to build.

"It's the same chip, the same design," he explained. "It'll just be very small changes. We're trying to make sure we can build these computers with the least amount of money as possible. There were parts of these computers that used to have to be built manually by a technician. We want it to be more automated."

Engineers are trying to adjust the spacing in the circuit board so machines, instead of technicians, can build the boards.

From building to testing, the current computers cost more than $1 million each. Lemke said NASA hopes to cut the costs for them by 20%.


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