12 May, 2009

Space age technology

Like most people who have seen the latest Star Trek movie, I naturally think of space age hardware as the pinnacle of modern technology. To blast ahead at warp speeds, the systems in space must surely be at the cutting edge. A random conversation I had on Friday has totally changed my view of the world--or at least of what's orbiting the world.

Oh, how wrong I was before Friday.

I was chatting with one of the scientists who has been working on the Hubble telescope for his entire career, since long before it went up. In the course of a ten minute conversation, I found out a few things that would make earthbound IT pros shudder:

First, the space shuttle mission that blasted off on Monday, May 11th, 2009 was delayed by seven months because of a data router failure. Up in space, a NASA-style Ethernet box went into remission--the kind of thing that IT folk like me could fix a quick trip over to Office Depot and five minutes on site. That pushed back a schedule from October 2008 to mid-May, 2009.

Secondly, the computer systems on Hubble are, to put it mildly, a little behind the times. It went up with a system based around the 386 Intel processor, for one thing. Of course, this was in 1990, when the 386 wasn't quite so prehistoric as it seems to be now. And they did upgrade it later...to a 486, which is what's in there now.

Why the pre-Cambrian technology and glacial repair speeds? It's all about location. To see if they'll survive in orbit, CPUs and routers destined for space need to be tested in harsh conditions--real vacuums, space cold, and cosmic radiation. This takes time. And what takes more time is a tendency to be conservative: The huge distances and cost involved with repair missions in space means that you don't do anything unless you're sure it won't fail quickly. That's why the fastest CPUs in permanent space objects are typically 10 years behind what we earthlings have on our desks.

The third and most significant thing: When anything at all goes wrong on Hubble, it shuts down. At first blush, this sounds pretty inefficient, but it makes sense when you look at the big picture. You've got a massively powerful lens system. You've got a sun nearby with no cloud cover. You've got an expensive space station. And you've got a planet below. Typical childhood experiments with lenses, sunlight, and ants or dried leaves or paper lead to one inevitable conclusion: You don't want that kind of focused energy beaming into the space station--or worse, down to the planet's surface.

That's one kind of cutting-edge technology that you really don't want in orbit around the earth.

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