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An Astronaut's View of Space Station Tech 115

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the i-can-see-my-house-from-here dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Here's a chat with a NASA astronaut about how they fix system outages on board the International Space Station, what kind of computing tech they use on board, and how he would like to see the iPad used on the ISS." He talks about using 5 year old laptops because they had been tested to handle the stresses of space travel, as well as the importance of being able to read emails and send pictures to family while aboard a space station for months at a time.
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An Astronaut's View of Space Station Tech

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  • ISS: Oops.
    Houston: You we don't like that word, ISS.
    ISS: Sorry.
    Houston: What happened?
    ISS: Accidentally fired a de-orbit burn.
    Houston: How'd that happen?
    ISS: Went to enter a course correction, and opened my fart app instead.
    Houston: D'oh!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 18, 2010 @12:36PM (#34269364)

    One page version of the article [silicon.com].

    Not that I bothered reading it.... if they are quoting astronauts advocating ipads, it is clearly just yet another propaganda piece pushing mindless consumption. Very few people will operate a computer in zero gravity, and whilst it is possible that no keyboard and being stuck in a closed playground could be good in space, I should think the ipad would suck as much as when on the ground.

    • by cowscows (103644)

      I love my iPad, but one of its main advantage over my laptop for me is that the ipad weighs much less and so is much more portable. But in space since everything's weightless, that benefit goes away, so it doesn't sound that much better.

  • IPAD vs Laptop (Score:1, Interesting)

    by spartyparty (1943028)
    I feel that using a IPad would be a no brainer for usage on a space station. Think about carrying around a laptop on a space station compared to a tablet. Much friendly and also why not create applications customized to their needs. Only down side is are they powerful enough...my guess is if they are using five year old lap tops it cannot be too far off
    • Re:IPAD vs Laptop (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ZERO1ZERO (948669) on Thursday November 18, 2010 @12:44PM (#34269474)
      Would the iPad orientation sensor get confused when used in zero g environment? Does it use gravity to determine which way is up? What about gps do you get wimpy gps readings when using a gps receiver in space?
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by ZERO1ZERO (948669)
        Of course, by wimpy I mean, wonky. Damn iPhone autocorrect.
      • g sensor would be confused. Have to manually set the orientation. Since gps signals come from satellites in higher orbit than the station, I'd expect the signal to be stronger, not weaker.
        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by chispito (1870390)
          Except most civilian GPS chips don't work above 60 or 80k feet or so and definitely not at orbital velocities. I assume this is so you can't put your Tomtom in a SCUD missile.
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by c6gunner (950153)

            I assume this is so you can't put your Tomtom in a SCUD missile.

            Right, because everyone wants a SCUD that's constantly making U-turns and going down dead-end streets!

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by Hylandr (813770)
            Me: "TomTom, course to Orbit Earth"
            TomTom:Turn Left,
            ...Turn Left,
            ...Turn Left,


            - Dan.
          • That's a good point. Hadn't thought about that limitation.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by marcansoft (727665)

          The signal would be stronger (well, except for the walls of the ISS), but most consumer GPS chipsets are utterly confused at high altitudes and high ground speeds. No real reason it couldn't be made to work given suitable GPS firmware, but it won't work out of the box.

          • by Wyatt Earp (1029)

            My 8 year old Garmin handheld works great on an airplane at 41,000, assuming I zoom the map out enough so it's not redrawing every couple seconds.

            My cousin flys A320s and the GPS on his 3G iPad works just fine in the cockpit.

      • What, so you can find your way back to the ISS? Uh-oh...
      • Re:IPAD vs Laptop (Score:4, Informative)

        by sahonen (680948) on Thursday November 18, 2010 @01:49PM (#34270654) Homepage Journal
        A few interesting things about GPS in space:

        a) All GPS receivers capable of sensing a position higher than 11 miles or a velocity higher than 515 meters/sec are classified as munitions and require state department licenses to export... Pretty much no consumer GPS receiver, including the iPad is going to be able to find itself in orbit. OTOH, the Space Shuttle itself uses GPS for space navigation, and I'm sure the ISS has a GPS receiver on board as well that can find its own location.

        b) The GPS satellites orbit at 20,000 km, while the ISS orbits at 350km... The strength of the signal isn't really all that affected.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by c6gunner (950153)

          b) The GPS satellites orbit at 20,000 km, while the ISS orbits at 350km... The strength of the signal isn't really all that affected.

          Given a constant medium, sure, that would be correct. On the other hand, going just 2 meters underground will weaken the signal more than your entire 20,000 km range.

          Not to say that you're wrong - I'm not sure how much more signal degradation you get due to atmosphere vs in a vacuum - but it's not as simple as you're making it sound.

          • by sahonen (680948)
            Well, your reception certainly isn't going to get worse by putting less between you and the transmitter.
            • by c6gunner (950153)

              Ah I see the problem. Most of the comments I was reading were suggesting that reception would improve. I never actually read the one you were responding to. Whoops.

        • The restriction on civilian GPS receivers is that the receiver should be able to show a position higher than 11mi, or a velocity greater than 515m/s, but not both simultaneously. A number of GPS manufacturers, however, have implemented this in a somewhat slack fashion and used || instead of &&.

      • by Wyatt Earp (1029)

        Since GPS is in space, I'd think you'd get very good GPS reception on ISS.

        That's assuming they'd get a 3G iPad, my Wifi only work iPad doesn't have GPS.

      • by ThePeices (635180)

        The orientation sensors used in Android and iOS devices are MEMS accelerometers, which only measure acceleration in each of the 3 axises. On Earth, gravity provides us with a constant 1g acceleration in a fixed direction, which is used to calculate the orientation of the device.

        In zero G, and just floating there in front of you and not moving, the accelerometer will show a reading of 0g in all three directions, indicating that the device is in free-fall, which is quite correct.

        So, yes, the orientation senso

        • by Coren22 (1625475)

          The freefall sensor in my laptop at least is configurable, I would imagine most of them can be turned off.

    • use a centralized server to handle the data and you'll be fine. ISS, there's an app for that.
    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by internewt (640704)

      I feel that using a IPad would be a no brainer for usage on a space station.

      That's lucky then, because astronauts are notorious for being at the bottom of their classes all through their education, and often tend to fail when they get to the end. They are well known as stupid, so an ipad would go well with their no brains.

      Think about carrying around a laptop on a space station compared to a tablet.

      They'd weigh the same? A laptop can be closed to protect it when it inevitably floats off one day?

      Much friendly

      User friendliness is essential as astronauts aren't trained at all, they are just stuck on a rocket, blasted into space, and left to figure it out. If the tools they

      • Re:IPAD vs Laptop (Score:4, Insightful)

        by e4g4 (533831) on Thursday November 18, 2010 @01:31PM (#34270330)
        An iPad, or any one-piece touchscreen tablet running a modern operating system with an absolute minimum of moving/removable parts would be ideally suited to the space station environment. Light, small, durable and very unlikely to break, it would be much better than anything with many small moving parts (laptop with a keyboard, e.g.), and it would have 100% solid state storage. What's with the hate?
        • by tibman (623933)

          The only downside i can see is that it will constantly be hitting things. When typing on a laptop, it is fixed to a surface. Typing on an ipad, being handheld, you would always have to hold it or temporarily affix it to something in between using it and doing something else. If the ipad was bumpered and had some velco on it with corresponding strips on your thigh (for temp storage and perhaps reference) and perhaps chest (for storage) it would work very well. The formfactor is great. There are many man

          • by tverbeek (457094)

            I'd be curious to see how effective the iPad accelerometer would be in freefall. I suspect they'd have to flip the (software) switch to disable automatic screen reorientation, to avoid the iPad getting confused about which way is "down".

            • by tibman (623933)

              haha, does the ipad already do something when it goes into freefall (user drops it) ? That is a great point, the OS and/or Hardware would require customization.

          • iPad + two fans + assembly on it = control panel that can come to you or follow you around. You could even video conference with mission control if the facetime on ipad 2.0 rumors are true.

            /not an apple fanboy
            //although I do like my iPad

            • by tibman (623933)

              good idea..

              might need a 3rd fan to rotate on the x axis. The vid conference would work great too if it could be encrypted end to end and is compatible with all the ground points the ISS makes contact with (various countries too). The only problem i can see with it is being compatible with lots of other tech (some quite old).

              I wonder how much the bandwidth & latency is for data from the ISS? *googles* ah, no real internet connection. It's actually VNC to a computer on the ground :( sounds slow.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Requiem18th (742389)

          I'm not sure durable and iPad belong in the same sentence without a negative, you are looking for something more like this: http://www.ruggedtabletpc.com/ [ruggedtabletpc.com]

          • by e4g4 (533831)
            Strictly speaking, they weren't in the same sentence. At any rate, the iPad's greatest weakness (in terms of durability, at least) is damage from falling, which isn't really an issue on the space station.
            • On the contrary, in space things can fall in every way. But you can argue astronauts are very careful.

              • by e4g4 (533831)
                Well really - on the space station, everything is falling at the same rate and in the same direction, thereby neutralizing the iPad's greatest enemy, a 9.8 m/s/s acceleration vector pointed at a concrete floor.
                • It's not a weakness specifically related to concrete, you are misunderstanding the relationship between iPads and concrete, think "Batman" not "Superman".

                  Now answer this, which one has a better chance of survival against a micrometeorite impact, and iPad or a military grade tablet?

      • Re:IPAD vs Laptop (Score:5, Insightful)

        by vic.tz (1000138) on Thursday November 18, 2010 @02:18PM (#34271132)

        It's this kind of unprovoked, snarky assholery that I absolutely hate. GP didn't say anything inflammatory or ignorant, but you (and a few mods, as it seems) think it's acceptable to flame his post. Why?

        They'd weigh the same? A laptop can be closed to protect it when it inevitably floats off one day?

        Yeah, they'd weigh the same, but they definitely aren't used the same. I would think the ipad (or any tablet) would be more convenient than a laptop since it is designed to be used with one hand while holding it with the other. Laptops most likely need to be fastened to the ISS in some way in order to type on them. You can't simply use a laptop while floating in zero-g as it'd need a force to counter the force of your typing. If the astronauts were to have tablets instead, then they could take notes (or whatever astronauts do on the ISS) from any orientation.

        Absolutely. The ISS doesn't have any computers built into it, and all flight computing, life support control, etc. is done on the same computers that the astronauts use for their email, so computational power is paramount.

        Does this sentence have a point? Are you implying that GP thinks the ISS...? I don't know what you're implying! Your audience shouldn't have to decipher your patronizing sarcasm to understand your argument.

        Don't be a jerk.

        • Don't be a jerk.

          You must be new here.

        • "Yeah, they'd weigh the same, but they definitely aren't used the same. I would think the ipad (or any tablet) would be more convenient than a laptop since it is designed to be used with one hand while holding it with the other. Laptops most likely need to be fastened to the ISS in some way in order to type on them. You can't simply use a laptop while floating in zero-g as it'd need a force to counter the force of your typing. If the astronauts were to have tablets instead, then they could take notes (or wh

      • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        You are dead wrong in your statement that "all flight computing, life support control, etc. is done on the same computers that the astronauts use for their email"

        First, all the station MDMs do the flight control computing - they are special-built hardened special purpose computers.

        The PCS laptops are used as the human interface into the station MDMs - to display the status of various station systems, annunciate caution and warning alarms, and to send commands.

        The SSC laptops are used for general day-to-day

  • 5 year old laptop? If you can get one to run for that long before cocking-up, NASA's money is being well-spent...
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      No, this is not true. We had a story here some time ago about how they've upgraded to the Lenovo T61p Thinkpad. 1680x1050, yeah! I know this because I have a T61. They're damn solid, and pretty contemporary—Core 2 Duos around 2.5 GHz.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Nirvelli (851945)
      I'm typing this on a 5-year-old laptop with a 5-year-old installation of XP on it. I've had to add RAM and replace the battery and swap out the charger a few times, but otherwise this thing still runs great. You just have to actually take care of your equipment.
      • Notwithstanding the fact that I was being flippant, you've just exactly proved my point. These maintenance tasks (replacing parts) are not trivial when you're in low earth orbit.
  • by digitaldc (879047) * on Thursday November 18, 2010 @12:40PM (#34269412)
    "We use foot loops that allow us to park our feet - if you put a finger on the computer and you don't have something to restrain you, you can float away," Anderson said.

    Apparently, this isn't just an Earthly problem. Some of my colleagues desperately need foot restraints to keep them from gravitating to the coffee break room.
  • by BC_R3 (1942996)
    On many occasions I have opted to use old technology over new because of reliability and also because I know exactly what I'm doing. In high stress situations you don't want to lose time trying to figure out a new application when an old one would have worked just fine.
    • by gatzke (2977)

      Heard about missile folks using old stuff because it is hardened and works. Some systems run on core memory, physical single bit wound magnets. They make hardened CPUs too, but they are usually generations old.

      But for this, I would think they would let them consider a new laptop with maybe a spare? I know weight is an issue, but some of the modern netbooks are totally usable. I could probably survive with just my droid if I had to.

  • HAL! (Score:3, Funny)

    by falldeaf (968657) <falldeaf@nospAm.gmail.com> on Thursday November 18, 2010 @12:52PM (#34269660) Homepage

    One of the biggest worries that we have with our computer system on board is malicious software and virus attacks," Anderson said.

    I'm sad that astronauts are running windows... I thought for sure some type of HAL like AI was their OS on the freaking *space* station... or at least linux :P

    • Ah, but HAL is Clippy version two! Just look at his statements: "I'm sorry Dave. I can't do that Dave. Would you like a nice cup of tea Dave?" No HAL, I just want to open the damned airlock.
      • by falldeaf (968657)
        Haha, astute observation. That makes me wonder if Clippy's problem wasn't an image problem this whole time. That stupid paperclip looks so damn smug, while HAL's red, shiny eye seems intelligent, cold, and omnipresent.
      • I had HAL clips for some of my sound settings back in the day. My mom was using my computer to play solitaire or freecell, and was surprised when it said "Thank you for a very enjoyable game." when she finished.
  • Sometimes we forget just how connected we really are in modern society. I work at Best Buy and we even use an Ipad to run the sales floor and help track numbers. Technology is just a means to an end so I say give the astronauts whatever technology they see fit. Interesting piece.
  • I read (most of) the TFA, and it seems the only place the iPad is mentioned is in the last five or so lines at the end of the fourth page (of a total of four). The man says it's "very possible" they'll adopt a popular device like the iPad over another tablet or old PDA. Period. Based on this ridiculously small amount of information about it, the iPad shouldn't even be mentioned in the summary. But it is, because that makes people read the article.

    Y'know, I'm tired of all the blowjobs Steve Jobs is getting f

  • by houghi (78078) on Thursday November 18, 2010 @01:20PM (#34270146)

    if I had the choice between a 5 year well tested portable or a new gimmick.

    • by Ksevio (865461)
      Sad thing is they probably have newer equipment than my laptop. Of course it was new at the time.
  • Well ... (Score:3, Funny)

    by Stooshie (993666) on Thursday November 18, 2010 @01:30PM (#34270328) Journal
    ... I suppose it is only Macs that connect to ailien space ships. I wonder if that's true of iPads as well.
  • by ShavedOrangutan (1930630) on Thursday November 18, 2010 @01:48PM (#34270632)
    In 2001 A Space Odyssey, in the first scene onboard the Discovery when Bowman and Poole are having dinner, they're both watching a BBC broadcast on iPads!

    Full size flat screen video tablets that look suspiciously like an iPad.

    In 1968! That was 42 years ago!
    • by whoop (194)

      Or were they time travelers? Hmmm? It coulda happened.

  • by Solandri (704621) on Thursday November 18, 2010 @01:50PM (#34270660)
    The computing hardware built into the ISS is not really something you want to be "upgrading" every few years. The "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" principle applies here: The hardware is running multiple systems critical to life. If it works fine now, don't mess with it and expose yourself to the possibility of the new system having bugs which could kill people.

    Less critical functions can be run on a portable computing device like a laptop. These can be upgraded more frequently since they don't have to be tested as thoroughly as the mission-critical systems are. Due to the fast pace at which computing technology improves, this frequently results in situations where the portable computing device is more powerful than the built-in systems. On many early shuttle flights, the most powerful computer on board was the HP-41 calculator [wordpress.com].
    • Don't forget that in space, chips are exposed to more rays than on earth. Having a bit to flip by itself to its opposite value happens way more often. I'm sure they slow down the processor and add extra shielding to compensate....
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by jewelie (752077)

        add extra shielding to compensate....

        Ah! Do you know what happens if you add lots of shielding to try to stop a high speed particle from causing a single bit error? :) Apparently it turns one high speed particle into a shedload of other slightly slower but still stupidly fast particles, that instead cause a shedload of bit errors. (IANARS but I knew one once, and I made the same assumption as you til he corrected me! :) )

    • Just what do you think you're doing Dave?

  • by PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) on Thursday November 18, 2010 @03:03PM (#34271898)

    I remember reading about an interview with one astronaut, who said that the most spectacular sight he saw in outer space was when his urine was ejected from the capsule. It immediately froze, crystallized and exploded, and was brilliantly illuminated by the sunlight.

    I tried to google for this reference, but only came up with this: http://www.space.com/missionlaunches/090911-space-water-dump.html [space.com]

    It's nice to see that astronauts use their precious bodily fluids to entertain stargazers.

  • During Anderson's time on board he installed a local area network throughout the station, requiring him to run ethernet cable ... upgraded software on the station, either by swapping out old hard drives or updating systems using a CDs or DVDs

    So with all of that training, knowledge and the background checks this guy is basically an intern? I thought that these people had PhD's and were doing important research. If that's all you really need to know to become an Astronaut then I'm owed an apology because I was lied to in school.

  • Check the picture! - Input from four different suns! (And three stars, it seems). I thought Suns WERE stars.. oh well, my mistake.
  • by spadg3 (1934762)
    Are Aliens real? Tell me what you think and why. Please write neatly. Personal Survey. https://docs.google.com/document/d/11_wdMLhh9TgtTE4IOaeFfJ1SVi1WnBHWRkdZoA0nI18/edit?hl=en [google.com]

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