This is what are claiming engineers at Johns Hopkins University and NASA, with computers equipped with new reconfigurable chips. They are even in use today, according to this New Scientist story, "Changeable chip passes cosmic ray test."
A new type of on-board computer for satellites, which can be fully reconfigured for new tasks while in orbit, has passed a critical cosmic ray test.
The Adaptive Instrument Module (AIM) is aboard the Australian research satellite FedSat 1, launched in December 2002. Last month the module suffered a memory error due to the bombardment of cosmic radiation that affects all satellites. But AIM automatically detected and then reset itself, to prevent this memory error causing an error in the data it was processing.
The Johns Hopkins engineers used Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) circuits to control logic operations.
This chip can perform a wide variety of different tasks depending on its controlling software. This flexibility would let engineers perform complete upgrades to a satellite's computer system after launch, allowing it to adapt to a far wider range of unforeseen circumstances.
This is what leads to a revolution in satellite design. Instead of custom circuits able to do only one thing, these circuits can be reprogrammable from the ground. You can design a single generic board for all kinds of missions and payloads, and then modify its capabilities through software.
Ann Darrin, project scientist at Johns Hopkins, says reconfigurable chips could also be used to improve a computer's performance or work around malfunctions in orbit. Engineers could even upload new software commands so that the chip performed different calculations.
A future design currently being developed at Johns Hopkins, called the Adaptive Processing Template, would allow missions to be rethought in real time. "You can really change the hardware then to line up with any change in environmental concerns," Darrin told New Scientist.
For more information about this Australian satellite, you can visit the FedSat overview
Source: Will Knight, New Scientist, July 28, 2003
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