Beta
×

Welcome to the Slashdot Beta site -- learn more here. Use the link in the footer or click here to return to the Classic version of Slashdot.

Thank you!

Before you choose to head back to the Classic look of the site, we'd appreciate it if you share your thoughts on the Beta; your feedback is what drives our ongoing development.

Beta is different and we value you taking the time to try it out. Please take a look at the changes we've made in Beta and  learn more about it. Thanks for reading, and for making the site better!

Hubble Repairs Hindered By Antiquated Computer Systems

Soulskill posted more than 5 years ago | from the you-should-see-the-sputnik-abacus dept.

NASA 193

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comes from the fact that it's been up there for nearly two decades, and therefore carries computer systems long outdated here on Earth.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."

cancel ×

193 comments

Sorry! There are no comments related to the filter you selected.

Upgrade (1, Insightful)

Jerry Smith (806480) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504577)

Isn't it about time the hardware gets an upgrade? I know, they like their known issues and reliabilities, but I guess some Pentiums could be considered 'reliable', couldn't they?

Re:Upgrade (5, Informative)

talcite (1258586) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504629)

They need to have the chips hardened for radiation. I'm not sure what the process entails, but they don't seem to do it with chips younger than 10 years or so. /. did a pretty good article on this awhile back I think.

Re:Upgrade (3, Informative)

Original Replica (908688) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504729)

They need to have the chips hardened for radiation. I'm not sure what the process entails

I would hope it involves putting the everything in a radiation shielded box. I could see how smaller chip architectures might be more susceptible to radiation, but a decade is enough time to figure that out and use exterior shielding instead of hardening. Sure that might be much more difficult, but if you can't handle difficult don't work at NASA. Of course with a Hubble sized budget, there is no excuse for not having several back-up sets of the non-custom parts that might not be available in a few years. Computer components had exhibited that high turn over rate for plenty of time before Hubble launched.

Re:Upgrade (5, Informative)

talcite (1258586) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504795)

I actually don't think you can realistically shield effectively against some types of high energy particles. Nuclear reactors use 6 ft of concrete to shield against neutrons. There's higher energy particles than neutrons in space. I'm sure that external shielding plays a large role in it, but there's probably more to it. The wikipedia article on radiation hardening is actually very good. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Radiation_hardening&oldid=235697687 [wikipedia.org]

Re:Upgrade (4, Insightful)

peragrin (659227) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504943)

at 10,000 a pound to launch the shuttle, weight reduction is most important. sending up lead computer cases because hardening a processor is hard is not an option when plastic weighs several pounds less.

Also up until 3-4 years ago the hubble was going to be shut down in the next year or two and was only extended later. Unlike the mars rovers the hubble's life won't magical extend.

Re:Upgrade (2, Insightful)

geekoid (135745) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504999)

"...decade is enough time to figure that out and use exterior shielding instead of hardening. "

It's a fallacy to assume technology can solve every problem, or that solving it a specific way can be 'figured out'.

Re:Upgrade (4, Insightful)

x2A (858210) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505075)

Why bother with heavy shielding when you can just make the transistors big enough to not be flippable by single stray particals? Thick shielding might prevent 99.999% of dangerous bit flipping radiation from getting through, but what about that last tiny bit, you're going to need extra circuitry to detect errors in the processors circuitry... and everything starts getting more complicated, and you end up back where you started. In space, simpler is better.

Re:Upgrade (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25505091)

Some of the high energy particles are not stopped by planets.

The hardening is also about making the computer less susceptible to errors from the inevitable interactions, rather than preventing them altogether.

Methods include ionization detectors built into the lower chip substrate that can tell if, and where on the silicon an event occurred.

Re:Upgrade (1)

Samizdata (1093963) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505267)

Hardening the chips is a very light way to deal with radiation, as well as providing one level in a layered approach to environmental defense.

Re:Upgrade (5, Interesting)

evanbd (210358) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505635)

Actually, some sorts of shielding make things worse. Moderate amounts of shielding just end up providing targets for the really high energy particles, which releases a big cloud of moderate energy particles on impact. The secondary radiation is both more abundant and more likely to interact with the stuff on the inside, and so causes a bigger problem. For space applications, there are intermediate amounts of shielding that will actually *increase* the total dose. (This is the case for cosmic rays, not solar flares; the latter can be fairly effectively shielded against, but is frequently less of a concern.) If you're not willing to put *large* amounts of mass around the thing to be shielded, it's often impossible to improve things all that much.

Hardening often consists of simple changes that are nonetheless expensive because they involve changes to the whole production line -- things like rating all the transistors for a noticeably higher voltage, to reduce the likelihood of a radiation-induced latchup event. As chip voltages get lower, this gets harder. Other changes include things like using isotopically pure boron in your dopants -- boron comes in two common isotopes, 10B and 11B. 11B is relatively immune to cosmic radiation, but 10B will fision when hit -- releasing secondary ionizing particles that cause a much greater problem than the cosmic ray by itself would. So rad-hard chips end up made with (expensive) depleted boron.

Combine these, and you see why it's difficult to find a decent selection of rad-hard chips, and also why an up-to-date radiation hardened CPU can cost over $100k each -- and also why you nonetheless need them, and can't really substitute anything short of a few tons of shielding.

Re:Upgrade (1)

BigFootApe (264256) | more than 5 years ago | (#25506203)

The also sometimes use SRAM rather than DRAM for the buffer -- less susceptible to bit flips.

Re:Upgrade (4, Informative)

Jeff DeMaagd (2015) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505805)

What you want may well be impossible. There are no magical materials right now to do what you want. Cosmic rays in the range TeV can't be stopped with a box that can be affordably launched, much less fit into the satellite. It's easier to use chips that are designed to handle them.

NASA already has a backup computer, on which are two independent circuits to do the same thing. Side "B" that is on the Hubble right now is handling things right now, after side "A" quit working.

NASA is putting the last of their spare parts on the Hubble right now, after which, there are no more short of restarting production, which isn't going to happen affordably. They made a lot of replacement parts which were gradually used as there were servicing missions.

Re:Upgrade (1)

Original Replica (908688) | more than 5 years ago | (#25506069)

Why use a heavy metal box to stop the cosmic rays or solar flare protons? They are both positively charged. Just put a positive charge around the computer box, and negative charge around a few "lightning rods" a few feet away and let magnetic forces do the rest. You don't have to stop the high energy particles, you just have to convince them to miss the few square inches of delicate electronics. Launch weight radiation shielding is something that NASA is going to have to tackle soon enough anyway if we ever want to leave our magnetosphere for more than about a week. Why not test it on a modern Hubble CPU, while keeping the remaining legacy chip as a back up?

Re:Upgrade (1)

davolfman (1245316) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505847)

What little shielding you could lift into orbit wouldn't do jack against the high-velocity protons and junk kicking around in space.

Re:Upgrade (1)

CheshireCatCO (185193) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505311)

Well, they also have to do a test of it before most outfits will try the chip out on a serious mission. NASA isn't about to assume that a given chip really is ready for the radiation environment around the Earth when it comes to a major project like Hubble until it's been demonstrated on a less-expensive satellite. So you have to find someone willing to fly the beast and verify that it's OK for whatever duration people require to feel safe. That adds more time onto the turn-around.

Re:Upgrade (1)

Randall311 (866824) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505663)

That statement for it taking '10 years or so' for a space suitable chip has to be false. How else do you explain the 486 chip up there? Unless it was 'upgraded' from only God knows what back in the late 90's.

Re:Upgrade (5, Insightful)

Golddess (1361003) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504677)

I would imagine it's a little more difficult than simply popping out the CPU and putting in a new one. If you were tasked with upgrading a 486 here on Earth, how many components do you think you'd be able to recycle into the new machine? You'd end up replacing the whole thing, maybe keeping the HDD around just long enough to get your data off it.

Re:Upgrade (1)

Ironsides (739422) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504701)

I'd keep um... Nothing. I wouldn't even bother with the case. Everything is using ISA cards, CD-ROMs had to be supported through the Sound Blaster Sound Cards and the Power Supply is outdated for the connections to the motherboard. (I'm using a semi-working 486 I have for reference for this)

Re:Upgrade (1)

symes (835608) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504823)

I'd imagine you are correct - but it does raise the issue of whether future space-tech could be designed to be upgraded. It's a pretty trivial task to swap components in PCs these days - why not have telescopes, etc., of the future more plug and play? I could almost imagine an automated service vehicle carrying out an upgrade.

Re:Upgrade (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505233)

The market is tiny. If you include a lot of etc. with the telescopes, it looks like there is a need for a few hundred hardened processing modules. Given those numbers, plug and play better save money over other methods (rather than just being convenient).

Re:Upgrade (4, Insightful)

timeOday (582209) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505837)

Why *should* it be upgraded? I don't bother upgrading the microprocessor in my thermostat, it seems to work fine.

Re:Upgrade (1)

Ritchie70 (860516) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505985)

Agreed.

I work for a rather large international retailer, in the US division's in-store IT department.

We have a good number of registers that are 486 based, although we're encouraging the stores to get rid of them.

The published minimum hardware spec for the last software release of our dominant POS application was a Pentium (not P-II, P-III, etc.) with 8M of memory. The reality is that it will run on the 486 register systems too, we just won't support it if it starts acting odd.

Re:Upgrade (1)

evilviper (135110) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505677)

If you were tasked with upgrading a 486 here on Earth, how many components do you think you'd be able to recycle into the new machine?

If the system was ridiculously expensive, and extremely hard to replace...

I imagine I'd pop over to eBay to buy a 83 MHz Pentium Overdrive CPU (circa 1996) to toss in the system, and if possible, add some higher capacity sticks of RAM for good measure.

What? You mean you've never had to deal with ridiculously old legacy systems still being pushed and extended decades later?

Re:Upgrade (1)

CaptainPatent (1087643) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504771)

On one hand the hardware is old and could probably use a revamp... on the other hand we did miss a few major bullets.

After all, NASA could have decided to run Windows ME [pcworld.com] with an Nvidia graphics card [theinquirer.net] with an IBM Deskstar 75GXP [pcworld.com]

Re:Upgrade (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25505669)

I did, Dear raeder, I did ....

Re:Upgrade (3, Interesting)

compro01 (777531) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504849)

It takes several years to develop a radiation hardened version of circuits, in addition to being very expensive. About the most modern such processor is based on the PowerPC 750, aka Apple's G3.

Also, as far as I understand it, processors using smaller processes are much more difficult to harden, which significantly limits modernization.

Re:Upgrade (3, Insightful)

ixnaay (662250) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505145)

Most rad hardened CPUs are RISC (powerPC, SPARC), there are very few options for x86 based rad hardened CPUs. Mil-spec wise Intel is doing well with their newer stuff (dual-core, etc.), but none of it has made it to the rad hardened world yet. The RAD750 [baesystems.com] is pretty much 'state of art', running at 166MHz.

Replacing an old 486 with one of these would require rewriting / compiling all the code running on them. Probably not enough of a performance gain in relation to the cost / risk of basically rewriting the code base from scratch.

Re:Upgrade (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25504957)

I agree. Upgrade the Voyager probes now!!

Re:Upgrade (1)

eclectro (227083) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504995)

Why upgrade?? They just need to slap a copy of BSD on it. BSD runs great on a 486.

Re:Upgrade (1)

Predius (560344) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505435)

Hell, FreeBSD 7 runs great on a 386, once you tweak the kernel to id it as a 486, or use an upgrade cpu that ID's as a 486.

http://www.x386.net/about.html [x386.net]

Re:Upgrade (3, Informative)

Darth_brooks (180756) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505077)

It's already running on an upgrade. The 486 was installed in 1999 as part of STS-103.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubble_Space_Telescope#Servicing_Mission_3A [wikipedia.org]

IIRC, the 486 was chosen specifically for the physical size of the data paths? Or the dies that cast the chips themselves? Either way, they were large enough that passing radation would be less likely to corrupt data that it would on the newer, smaller pentium based chips.

Re:Upgrade (5, Interesting)

jacobsm (661831) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505095)

A quote from the famous "Real programmers don't use Pascal" article written in 1983. Some of the most awesome Real Programmers of all work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Many of them know the entire operating system of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft by heart. With a combination of large ground-based Fortran programs and small spacecraft-based assembly language programs, they are able to do incredible feats of navigation and improvisation-- hitting ten-kilometer wide windows at Saturn after six years in space, repairing or bypassing damaged sensor platforms, radios, and batteries. Allegedly, one Real Programmer managed to tuck a pattern matching program into a few hundred bytes of unused memory in a Voyager spacecraft that searched for, located, and photographed a new moon of Jupiter. The current plan for the Galileo spacecraft is to use a gravity assist trajectory past Mars on the way to Jupiter. This trajectory passes within 80 +/- 3 kilometers of the surface of Mars. Nobody is going to trust a Pascal program (or Pascal programmer) for navigation to these tolerances. If you have never read it, it's still a great read (at least for us old-timers). http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/real.programmers.html [pbm.com]

Re:Upgrade (2, Funny)

purpleraison (1042004) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505277)

A quote from the famous "Real programmers don't use Pascal" article written in 1983.

Some of the most awesome Real Programmers of all work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Many of them know the entire operating system of the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft by heart. With a combination of large ground-based Fortran programs and small spacecraft-based assembly language programs, they are able to do incredible feats of navigation and improvisation-- hitting ten-kilometer wide windows at Saturn after six years in space, repairing or bypassing damaged sensor platforms, radios, and batteries. Allegedly, one Real Programmer managed to tuck a pattern matching program into a few hundred bytes of unused memory in a Voyager spacecraft that searched for, located, and photographed a new moon of Jupiter.

The current plan for the Galileo spacecraft is to use a gravity assist trajectory past Mars on the way to Jupiter. This trajectory passes within 80 +/- 3 kilometers of the surface of Mars. Nobody is going to trust a Pascal program (or Pascal programmer) for navigation to these tolerances.

If you have never read it, it's still a great read (at least for us old-timers).

http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/real.programmers.html [pbm.com]

Hey - don't forget the folks at the NASA research facility at Langley :(

Re:Upgrade (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505283)

If you really are an old timer, you might not be aware of just how much meaning Chappelle Show added to keeping it Real.

When you say "Real Programmer", I imagine them smashing keyboards over other programmer's heads, all in the name of Real.

Re:Upgrade (1)

Achromatic1978 (916097) | more than 5 years ago | (#25506187)

But don't forget what happens when ... keeping it real ... goes wrong!

"I don't like peoples playin' on ma phone!"

Re:Upgrade (2, Funny)

BillX (307153) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505841)

Assembler? Bah. Us Real Programmers use a floppy diskette, a needle and a horseshoe magnet.

Re:Upgrade (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25505361)

Considering mankind has demonstrated it is all but incapable of launching a manned mission to the moon in this decade, I'm not convinced upgrading computers has all the perks one would expect.

1969 - Man on Moon
2001 - Tourist in Orbit

All that proves is a very few people are wealthier.

Re:Upgrade (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25505429)

http://www.sandia.gov/media/rhp.htm

News release
December 8, 1998

Intel provides a no-fee license to US government

Sandia Labs to develop custom, radiation-hardened Pentium® processor for space and defense needs

Albuquerque, N.M. -- Intel Corp. and the Department of Energy (DOE) announced today (Dec. 8) that Intel will provide a no-fee license for its Pentium® processor design to DOE's Sandia National Laboratories for the development of custom made microprocessors for US space and defense purposes. The agreement saves US taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in microprocessor design costs and provides the federal government with a 10-fold increase in processing power over the highest performing existing technology...

Re:Upgrade (2, Insightful)

Crazy Taco (1083423) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505781)

Isn't it about time the hardware gets an upgrade?

From reading the article, it didn't sound like they could even do upgrades, even if they wanted to (although I suppose they probably could salvage the mirror and build a new system around it). That actually surprises me a bit, since they knew this would be a long running mission and it is within range to be worked on. I know these days as a computer engineer, my bosses are always telling me to design for the future with upgrades in mind, but maybe that wasn't as big a priority back then (perhaps because each doubling of computer power is so much more massive now, and makes more of a difference than it did back then).

Re:Upgrade (1)

nosretap (1213052) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505783)

Isn't there a philosophy that if it is 10 yrs old and still working, it ain't broke? Last gen chips have the bugs worked out. Bugs in new chips are expensive when in space!

Re:Upgrade (1)

SIR_Taco (467460) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505933)

Ok, we'll send you out to Voyager for repairs. I'll see you in about 100,000 years.
      The fact is that it's more cost effective to send someone to fix the problem with aging hardware/software than it is to develop a new telescope satellite and send it into space. This whole topic reminds me of the COBOL programmer article. Same space, different pile.

Memory (5, Funny)

Duct Tape Jedi (802164) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504587)

well if the Hubble has at least 640k memory it should be fine. . . .right?

640K (2, Funny)

bobbonomo (997543) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504837)

Sure! How can anyone use more than even 64K (was the saying when the 8086 came out).

Re:Memory (3, Funny)

camperdave (969942) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504879)

It's not that. They're linked up, but all they are seeing on the screen is:


C:\>_

and for some reason the mouse doesn't move.

Re:Memory (1)

geekoid (135745) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505019)

Most satellites, even modern ones, only have 640K

In before... (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25504595)

"Well it probably runs better than Vista"

Spares? (0)

Merls the Sneaky (1031058) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504597)

I got a few spare cpu and sticks of EDO/SD ram. :P

Re:Spares? (1)

NotBornYesterday (1093817) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505057)

Yeah, I knew that keeping that old hardware around was a good idea. I'll sell NASA a couple old 486s (DX! With the math coprocessor!) for cheap ... say, $10,000 each?

Re:Spares? (1)

Merls the Sneaky (1031058) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505107)

The DX is worth at least 15 :P

Re:Spares? (1)

Samizdata (1093963) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505325)

This is why we can't have nice space things...

Re:Spares? (2, Informative)

ciscoguy01 (635963) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505381)

The US government had a standing order to chip brokers for all the 8087 math coprocessors that could be had. They are used in some military radar units and there is no replacement available.

Hardly that antiquated (4, Informative)

telchine (719345) | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

You know you are getting old... (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25504833)

...when you think Hubble is an astronomer.

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

Re:You know you are getting old... (1)

PunkOfLinux (870955) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505085)

I've actually met Hubble's nephew. Very cool guy, and actually *interested* in his uncle's work.

Anyway...

make the telescope Plug and Play USB.

Re:You know you are getting old... (4, Funny)

cheater512 (783349) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505659)

Windows has detected a new piece of hardware:

Hubble Telescope

Would you like to try and find the driver on Windows Update?

Re:Hardly that antiquated (1)

Kjella (173770) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504901)

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 directly, then the power to operate the antenna probably draws more than the processor does).

CPU Constrained? (1)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504993)

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 sends the data to Earth in a losslessly compressed format. Anybody care to correct those assumptions?

And since 1989 I don't think we've improved upon lossless compression much, but have improved considerably upon cramming more signal in a given bandwidth, so the biggest bang for the buck should be replacing the radios.

But then we have backplane speeds, sensor data rates, etc... heck, maybe the space scientists know what they're doing.

Re:CPU Constrained? (0)

cheater512 (783349) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505701)

PNG is somewhat better than TIFF last time I checked.

Re:CPU Constrained? (1)

jlarocco (851450) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505977)

How do you figure?

Re:CPU Constrained? (4, Insightful)

x2A (858210) | more than 5 years ago | (#25506281)

"PNG is somewhat better than TIFF last time I checked"

Most people learn at quite a young age that the word 'better' doesn't really mean anything on its own. Better at what? Better at supporting non-RGB colour spaces? Better at supporting RGB with more than 8bits per colour, or even floating point values? Storing multiple images in a single file? No, png supportings none of these things that tiff does. If you're creating computer graphics for UI's, websites etc, png is probably a better choice, as that's more what it's designed for, but there are many other uses for storing images outside of this scope that tiff fits much better than png. As far as compression's concerned, PNG supports DEFLATE, which existed before PNG did, and the same with TIFF and its supported LZW compression (not that there's anything stopping you compressing either with either).

To sum up: better at what?

Re:CPU Constrained? (1)

NemoinSpace (1118137) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505917)

I'm pretty sure you got it right
http://hubblesite.org/the_telescope/nuts_.and._bolts/instruments/wfpc2/index.php [hubblesite.org] CCDs are electronic circuits composed of light-sensitive picture elements (pixels), tiny cells that, placed together, resemble a screen-door mesh. Each of the four CCDs contains 640,000 pixels. The light collected by each pixel is translated into a number. These numbers (all 2,560,000 of them) are sent to ground-based computers, which convert them into an image.
Doesn't sound like the 486 is even breaking a sweat. Now considering this is slashdot, free as in er, free and all that, I would have opted for a "handful of these:" [wikipedia.org] But that would make me feel WAY to old :)

Re:Hardly that antiquated (3, Interesting)

x2A (858210) | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

Re:Hardly that antiquated (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25505857)

"huge amounts of heat that pentiums+ give off."

It's in space! Liquid cooling would work greeeaaat up there. Anand would jump at the chance to do that write up.

Re:Hardly that antiquated (3, Informative)

evilviper (135110) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505547)

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...

Re:Hardly that antiquated (1)

SgtAaron (181674) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505013)

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.

I think we used a 486-class processor.. a Cyrix processor if I remember correctly, in our mail server here until 2002. So I agree with you.

Back in 1993, I think, I replaced my 486SX 33Mhz with a 486DX 66Mhz, and I remember paying $600 for the thing!

Young whippersnappers! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25505025)

32KB of RAM is more than many C64 games used. If they can't impress the aliens with 32K, nothing will do.

The problem isn't the actual i486 chip (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25504613)

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

Algorithms, control, what is the CPU for? (1)

kuleiana (629890) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504653)

I mean, what if the sole purpose of the processor is to tell Hubble to "activate servomoter #3 for 2.5 seconds spinning left"? You only need a decent processor if you're going to be doing image compression and other demanding stuff. Otherwise, you're switching to a newer piece of hardware that may not be 20% as reliable, so you can gain a lot more power that you don't need - doh!

Re:Algorithms, control, what is the CPU for? (1)

Ironsides (739422) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504717)

I'm willing to bet the algorithm timing was based on how long it took instructions to execute and not an outside clock. In other words, a change in the execution time, not just the clock speed, will mess up the software.

Re:Algorithms, control, what is the CPU for? (0, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25504773)

I'm willing to bet you're wrong.

I feel their pain (5, Funny)

TheModelEskimo (968202) | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

Re:I feel their pain (1)

kuleiana (629890) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504689)

I have an old TI-99 4/A [btinternet.com] I can donate if you need it.

Re:I feel their pain (3, Insightful)

symes (835608) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504881)

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...

Re:I feel their pain (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25505011)

The Ti-99 needs ac. I'll donate my Model 102. 8 AA batteries for power and I even have the modem coupler. http://oldcomputers.net/trs100.html

Re:I feel their pain (3, Funny)

alchemist68 (550641) | more than 5 years ago | (#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?

Just Install Windows on It (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25504737)

C'mon really... if it were running Windows it would have failed nearly 2 decades ago and we could have got on with our lives :p

Hello, Dark Star? (2, Funny)

hax4bux (209237) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504777)

No TP for you! Budget problems...

Let me be the first to say... (0, Redundant)

erroneus (253617) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504799)

...32k ought to be enough for any orbital telescope.

bigger is not always better (1)

ericcantona (858624) | more than 5 years ago | (#25504857)

Having unlimited cycles and memory creates its own problems. Brooks describes in the mythical man month [wikipedia.org] how increasing the size of a software project introduces errors that slow down development. Having limited cycles forces code optimization, which is why many numerical tools used today are directly based on beautifully optimized fortran 77 [unlv.edu] routines written when number crunching power was precious.

Re:bigger is not always better (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505329)

I was under the impression that fortran enjoyed wide use because the routines are A. already written and B. already debugged.

I doubt all that many people care about 6 minute calculations taking 4 minutes, or 8 hour calculations taking 6 hours (I'm sure there are a few, but I'm also pretty sure that there are only a few...).

Voyager (3, Insightful)

lelitsch (31136) | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

Re:Voyager (1)

geekoid (135745) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505033)

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

Codger Dust (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25504987)

Maybe now there's a job for we oldsters who aren't getting hired because we aren't a "good match" for the young environment. I still have a working 486 machine here.

They can manage, til Hubble reports back home: (1)

davidsyes (765062) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505015)

"*I* am V'ger. The planet Earth must be purged of carbon-based infestation..., " followed by *I* am Nomad. YOU are an infestation.", followed by "*I* are... Hubba Hubba Hubba...You am Carba Carba Carba"

amazing what can be done (4, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

Well the processor wasn't too bad (1)

teknosapien (1012209) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505035)

When they placed it up there, unfortunately some one though it would be a great idea to upgrade to windows. Now the exploit patches have made it nearly impossible to get anything done with this machine.

Articles like this are really stupid (1)

duffbeer703 (177751) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505065)

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.

I bet these guys don't eat... (1)

exp(pi*sqrt(163)) (613870) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505177)

...quiche [pbm.com] .

for nasa: Evergreen 486 - Pentium (1)

jjeffries (17675) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505223)

Hey NASA, I still have some old Evergreen 486 to Pentium conversion chips in my cpu junk box... pop out that old, tired 486, stick this puppy in the socket, and you're good to go with (the equivalent of) 75mhz Pentium power!

Here's [popularmechanics.com] a timely article all about it.

Just let me know if you want them. Some moon rocks or dust in return would be cool, if you've got any to spare, but no problem if not.

"There really is no need to upgrade it." (4, Insightful)

againjj (1132651) | more than 5 years ago | (#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:"There really is no need to upgrade it." (2, Insightful)

domanova (729385) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505877)

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.

486? Oh my god! (1)

WheelDweller (108946) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505365)

(What's wrong with a 486? Tell me it's reliability, having worked for so long will somehow be worse than a modern dual-core CPU...)

Guys, the space program's ALWAYS had old equipment. They need the confidence-scan of inter-department certification- that takes time. Keep in mind: 3 + 3 is the same on any platform. Now, if it's a matter of CPU speed to manage skew, that may be something else. But if it couldn't handle the job, it wouldn't be there in the first place.

Just 'cause it's not running something needed to run Vista doesn't automatically mean it's junk. (It worked for the last two decades, ya know...) :)

Send a Repair and Replacement Team (2, Insightful)

reallocate (142797) | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

Lying summary? (1)

evilviper (135110) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505455)

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 idle for 18 years, but the telescope operates with computer systems long outdated here on Earth."

But even despite the high marks on the BS detector, it concludes with an unmistakable quote from an expert: "Hendrix says that the telescope's computer systems do exactly what they need to do. 'It's really reliable,' she said. 'There really is no need to upgrade it.'"

32K, 486 chipset ... need a LINUX OS flash quick! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25505815)

Where's the downside? Probably got some clunky legacy, proprietary code from a bloated govt. contract supplier bogging everything down ... think Windows on NASA steroids.

486 is not that old. (5, Insightful)

TerranFury (726743) | more than 5 years ago | (#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.

I don't usually buy extended warranties... (2, Funny)

count_schemula (843019) | more than 5 years ago | (#25505987)

... but if NASA had Geek Squad Black Tie Protection Premium, this would be a non-issue.

Space rated. (4, Informative)

bigattichouse (527527) | more than 5 years ago | (#25506109)

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.

COBOL (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 5 years ago | (#25506173)

The software isn't written in COBOL, is it?

Load More Comments
Slashdot Login

Need an Account?

Forgot your password?

Submission Text Formatting Tips

We support a small subset of HTML, namely these tags:

  • b
  • i
  • p
  • br
  • a
  • ol
  • ul
  • li
  • dl
  • dt
  • dd
  • em
  • strong
  • tt
  • blockquote
  • div
  • quote
  • ecode

"ecode" can be used for code snippets, for example:

<ecode>    while(1) { do_something(); } </ecode>