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NASA Space Technology Hardware

Hubble Repairs Hindered By Antiquated Computer Systems 193

Posted by Soulskill
from the you-should-see-the-sputnik-abacus dept.
Andrew Moseman writes "Part of the trouble NASA is encountering while fixing the Hubble Space Telescope comes from the fact that it's been up there for nearly two decades, and therefore carries computer systems long outdated here on Earth. 'One of the main computers that the Goddard team has been struggling with during the repair attempts runs on an Intel 486 chip, the height of 1989 technology.' Many of NASA's long-running missions rely on antiquated systems — the Voyager probes each have about 32k of memory — but the scientists say they can manage."
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Hubble Repairs Hindered By Antiquated Computer Systems

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  • Memory (Score:5, Funny)

    by Duct Tape Jedi (802164) on Friday October 24, 2008 @06:03PM (#25504587)
    well if the Hubble has at least 640k memory it should be fine. . . .right?
  • by telchine (719345) on Friday October 24, 2008 @06:04PM (#25504603)

    Maybe I'm just getting old, but a 486 doesn't seem all that big a deal to me. I mean it's not as if it's a completely different architecture to that in use today.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 24, 2008 @06:27PM (#25504833)

      ...when you think Hubble is an astronomer.

      I read the headline and thought there were complications during poor Edwin's double knee replacement.

    • by Kjella (173770)

      If you're thinking "Hey, we managed to run desktops on those too" then yes. If you're thinking anything along the lines of "Scientific calculations", then that extra computing power would be very, very handy. Those are the people that never, ever seem to run out of a need for more and faster processors, and I doubt these guys are any exception. Anything they can process onboard or compress better for sending back down to us would cut down on things that are probably a lot more scarce like bandwidth (if not

      • If you're thinking anything along the lines of "Scientific calculations", then that extra computing power would be very, very handy. Those are the people that never, ever seem to run out of a need for more and faster processors, and I doubt these guys are any exception. Anything they can process onboard or compress better for sending back down to us would cut down on things that are probably a lot more scarce like bandwidth

        I would have assumed that the telescope does very little processing on the image and

      • by x2A (858210) on Friday October 24, 2008 @07:03PM (#25505151)

        Hubble's not gonna be wasting it's precious cpu time on running calculations for scientists on earth; they can do that themselves here on much faster processors, rather than divide up processor time onboard a satellite. Hubble will, however, need processing power for alignment; controlling rocket burns to get it pointing the right way, controlling motors to position mirrors, that kinda stuff, which doesn't need huge amounts of processing power. Just decent, realtime, predictable core + software, without things like fdiv bugs, or huge amounts of heat that pentiums+ give off.

      • by evilviper (135110) on Friday October 24, 2008 @07:47PM (#25505547) Journal

        Anything they can process onboard or compress better for sending back down to us would cut down on things that are probably a lot more scarce like bandwidth (if not directly, then the power to operate the antenna probably draws more than the processor does).

        That's really not the case. Being so close to the earth, Hubble can broadcast with tiny amounts of power (far less than to run a CPU) and NASA's gigantic 65 meter dishes can pick up the faint signal very easily. Radio power consumption becomes a notable issue only with substantial distances from the earth, as it has with Voyager I/II.

        Bandwidth is certainly not scarce for such applications, this is very low power, highly directional, line-of-sight communications...

    • With all the upgrades to other important parts of the system, like RAM and the system bus, in some ways it is completely different architecture. I'm sure if you tried to load Vista onto an old, average 486 box (assuming it's possible), you might agree.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    No manufacturer makes the turbo buttons that must be disengaged so Hubble can focus properly.

  • by TheModelEskimo (968202) on Friday October 24, 2008 @06:10PM (#25504667)
    I sent my Amiga 500 into orbit in 2001 using a homemade trebuchet (granted, quite a large one) and a very high mountain. It broadcasts the Pinball Dreams high score list every two hours on the hour. The problem is, the last time I went up to do some improvements (long story) I had forgotten a few vital 68000 assembler directives, so I was unable to make the transition from antiquated late-80s desktop computer to cutting-edge ASAT weapon. Too bad, now the 10kT warhead I attached to it is probably just sitting there, twiddling its sub-critical materials.
    • by symes (835608) on Friday October 24, 2008 @06:31PM (#25504881) Journal
      I see this has been modded funny - but there is a v.salient issue here. Once space-based weaponry is up there there'll be little option for critical upgrades...
    • by alchemist68 (550641) on Friday October 24, 2008 @07:28PM (#25505379)
      I'll donate my Timex/Sinclair TS 1000 (4MHz Zilog Z80A) with 2K RAM & 16K RAM pack, cassette recorder, cables, and TV switch box, plus it runs on 9V DC!

      I'll tell ya, I wouldn't mind unloading this thing, it's a bitch loading and saving my CV from/to cassette these days - it's difficult to find cassettes! It takes 15 minutes to load the word processor I found in COMPUTE magazine back in 1982, another 15 minutes to load/save the CV, AND, it's even more fun printing to the Timex/Sinclair 2040 roller tape thermal printer, but it makes a really great server since it can't be hacked, and moreover, it uses very little energy! I just creatively tape two rolls of thermal paper on a 8.5" x 11" paper and make a Zerox of the CV - fools most experts into thinking I did this with MS Office or Open Office! When they here how I did everything, I've cinched the JOB!

      I still program in assembler code! Do you?
  • No TP for you! Budget problems...

  • Voyager (Score:4, Insightful)

    by lelitsch (31136) on Friday October 24, 2008 @06:39PM (#25504939)

    Many of NASA's long-running missions rely on antiquated systems -- the Voyager probes each have about 32k of memory -- but the scientists say they can manage."

    It would be nice if the submitter would add a proposed remedy, like simply sending a service probe out to add some more RAM.

    Oh, wait.

    Well, I guess when they send a space probe out into the furthest reaches of the solar system, most scientists would expect that they will have to deal with whatever hardware was on board at the time of the launch for the duration of the mission.

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Yeah, they should run on systems from the future so they become modern as they get older!

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ceoyoyo (59147)

      32k is a decent chunk to a decent embedded programmer.

      The kids these days.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday October 24, 2008 @06:49PM (#25505029)

    in such a small space by a good programmer. Most systems today are so encumbered by having been built by toolkits built on toolkits built on metalanguages ad nauseum that a simple "hello world" program now can run hundreds of K of memory.

    My compliments to the programmers who still know how to get the most out of the little resources they're working with on these scientific probes.

  • What are they supposed to do? Spend millions to upgrade a spacecraft orbiting the earth for minimal gain?

    What about the Voyager probe... what should we do? FedEx doesn't ship to the outer rim of the solar system.

  • by againjj (1132651) on Friday October 24, 2008 @07:19PM (#25505291)

    I love the end of the article:

    "It's really reliable," she said. "There really is no need to upgrade it."

    I wish more people understood that.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by domanova (729385)
      That's the point. Does it need to run Vista? I think not. I have a box with a 486 in it, it still does what it was supposed to do. (yes, linux)
      I doubt there's any NASA engineers lusting for a dual-core whoopie-doo. They just want their backup to come alive, after all these years.
      The original deserves a medal, for service beyond, and a pension. Perhaps it could run for president.
      • Run Vista? Can you just imagine what the Hubble's Telescope desktop picture of the second is?

        I had a box with a PentiumOD in it, and got tired of seeing the FOOF bug patch every six months when It needed to be rebooted, so I pulled the POD and put a DX-66, and it still worked the same. ( it did go from 2% CPU Utiliziation to 3% CPU Utilization ).

        The originonal programmers deserve medals. They did NOT use windows/MS bug crap.
  • by reallocate (142797) on Friday October 24, 2008 @07:31PM (#25505405)

    It's no news that Hubble is operating with technology that dates from the era of its launch.

    If you want machines in space to use current tech, then you need to send people with uptodate hardware.

    Hint, hint.

  • Part of the trouble NASA is encountering while fixing the Hubble Space Telescope comes from the fact that it's been up there for nearly two decades, and therefore carries computer systems long outdated here on Earth.

    Which "part" of the "troubles" and according to who?

    Only the Popular Mechanics article even SUGGESTS that age and technological obsolescence might (maybe-sorta-kinda slightly) contribute: "But perhaps finding a few problems should come as no surprise--not only have Hubble's backup systems sat id

  • by TerranFury (726743) on Friday October 24, 2008 @08:29PM (#25505889)

    This is a bullshit article. Unfortunately, that has become the norm for Popular Mechanics.

    The Intel 486 is hardly some arcane CPU that's so old that nobody knows how to program it. Anybody who can write assembly for modern PCs can write assembly for the 486. And anybody who wants to write in a higher-level language can -- because all the 486 development tools are still easily available.

    If you read the article, you'll find that it presents no evidence whatsoever for its assertion that the Hubble's use of a 486 makes it harder to repair. In fact, it reads more like, "The Hubble has a 486, and damn that seems outdated to me! Maybe that's why it's so hard to fix!" Really, that's about the level of the 'logical' argument that you'll find in the article.

    • by gad_zuki! (70830)

      Yep and its shielded and certified for space use. The Space Shuttle has a few too. So does some of the Mars rovers, IIRC.

      I dont know what the author expects. Some big Hollywood-esque GUI controlling the Hubble? A think a typical desktop user (like the author) would be shocked at how little power embedded systems really need.

  • ... but if NASA had Geek Squad Black Tie Protection Premium, this would be a non-issue.
  • Space rated. (Score:5, Informative)

    by bigattichouse (527527) on Friday October 24, 2008 @09:03PM (#25506109) Homepage
    486 was officially the only space-rated hardware for a very long time. The problem is that when you create a smaller transistor, it becomes far more sensitive to ionizing radiation... the older the die, the larger - and thus less likely to be effected by radiation. More "modern" processors require more shielding.
  • Seems to me the antiquated systems worked fine before.

    Perhaps it's the whippersnappers who are unfamiliar with said systems that are the problem.

  • If I recall correctly, the chip used to be a 386, and they upgraded it during the first repair mission in 1993.

    I was in Ontario at the time working a co-op semester at the National Research Council; they aired the whole repair mission on local TV. It was like watching paint dry in the Sistine Chapel.

  • If it is dead, swap it out. (Conceptually simple, perhaps difficult to execute esp in space.)

     

With all the fancy scientists in the world, why can't they just once build a nuclear balm?

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