Why it matters: The X280 is a new RISC-V CPU developed to survive the harsh conditions of outer space and allow NASA scientists to complete their next Task. Expectations are high: at least a 100-fold increase in computing power while maintaining the same energy consumption.
NASA will soon make a major upgrade to the systems used in its spaceflight computers, using the RISC-V architecture developed and available under an open source license. NASA’s selection of SiFive for the CPU cores was an appropriate choice because the San Mateo, Calif.-based company was founded seven years ago to develop RISC-V-based hardware (where the “V” means it was 5th generation RISC instruction set) and will
SiFive is a fabless chip company, so the actual production of the chips will be in the hands of the Chandler, Arizona-based company Microchip Technology specializes in manufacturing microcontrollers, EEPROM chips and other IC products.
NASA awarded contracts worth $50 million to the two companies, with an expected 3-year time frame for final delivery of the new X280 CPUs. The X280 will be the computing foundation for the High-Performance Space Computing (HPSC) program, which aims to design and develop new aerospace technologies capable of delivering “at least” 100 times the computing power of currently used systems while using the same amount of energy .
The X280 will replace the RAD750 processor, an aging PowerPC-based CPU made by BAE Systems and used on multiple NASA missions since 2005. The Mars Perseverance rover and the recently launched James Webb Telescope are two of the most well-known space attempt CPUs implemented by the RAD750.
The X280 CPU currently under development for the HPSC system will use the 8 SiFive Intelligence RISC-V vector cores and 4 additional cores, which will provide the computing power jump NASA projected before the retirement of today’s space computers. According to SiFive, the dramatic increase in performance will help bring new possibilities to autonomous rovers, vision processing, spaceflight, guidance systems, communications and other elements of space exploration missions.
Another most important feature of the X280 is its tolerance to radiation: the HPSC will be specifically designed to survive the harsh and hostile space environment, without Earth helps control many space activities and ensures their ability to operate and deliver reliable results for the most critical operations.