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New System Architecture for Space-qualified high-performance Computers

In space travel, there is an ever-increasing demand for computing and communication power. This is the only way to realise the pre-processing of large amounts of data from demanding experiments and payloads or complex image processing for robot control of autonomous docking manoeuvres. On 1 July 2016, the third phase of the OBC-SA project started, in which a modular architecture for such future on-board computer systems is being developed.

Computer systems in space travel must function error-free and fail-safe over the entire mission duration despite the extreme conditions in space. Since maintenance is often not possible, a malfunction can lead to the failure of an entire mission. In addition to providing ever higher computing power, these computer systems must therefore also be highly fault-tolerant. They must recognise and handle sporadic malfunctions or even compensate for a permanent failure of a single system component by switching to a redundant component.

So far, space computers have been built according to the principle of "one function = one computer" in order to guarantee the lowest possible susceptibility to errors. However, with the growing demands on computer systems in space, a new architectural principle is needed. This is the only way to meet future demands for computing power while keeping volume, weight and energy requirements as low as possible.

In the OBC-SA project (On-Board Computer System Architecture), Fraunhofer FOKUS is therefore developing an open, modular and secure system architecture for future space computers together with Airbus DS, SYSGO AG and SpaceTech Immenstaad (STI). This system architecture is based on components that have already proven themselves in other industrial domains and are now being adapted for space travel.

Fraunhofer FOKUS uses commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components to exploit the high computing power of modern multi-core processors for space applications and at the same time reduce the cost of building space-qualified high-performance computers. Powerful redundancy and fault tolerance concepts were implemented to meet the high reliability and availability requirements of space computers. In addition to a multi-core-based processor board, Fraunhofer FOKUS is also developing the network components for the fault-tolerant communication infrastructure. Airbus DS is developing, among other things, a highly reliable computer based on a radiation-hardened quad-core processor, while STI is providing a compact, network-capable "remote data concentrator" unit. SYSGO AG is adapting the real-time operating system PikeOS, which is already certified to aerospace standards (DO-178 B), to the safety-critical requirements of space flight.

The overall system, which is based on the future Space CompactPCI® Serial standard, will have a very high degree of maturity, which will ensure a problem-free transfer of the subsystems to a flight version qualified for use in space.

The goal of the third phase of the OBC-SA project is to further develop a technology demonstrator developed in the second phase, which integrates the various components of the individual partners, into a so-called engineering model for qualification (IMQ). This development model will then be tested in a space-like environment - with appropriate temperature, radiation, a vacuum or even vibrations.

The project is funded by the Space Agency of the German Aerospace Centre with funds from the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology.

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