SiFive RISC-V cores and Microchip processors to be used in future NASA space missions

Why is it important: The X280 is a new RISC-V CPU being developed to survive the rigors of outer space and enable NASA scientists to take on their next missions. Expectations are high: at least a 100x increase in processing power while maintaining the same power consumption.

NASA will soon be making major upgrades to the systems used in its space-based computers, adopting the RISC-V architecture, developed and made available under open source licenses. NASA chose SiFive to provide the CPU cores, which is an appropriate choice as the San Mateo, California-headquartered company was founded 7 years ago to develop hardware based on RISC-V (where the “V” stands for instruction set). 5th generation RISC) and put compatible processors on the market.

SiFive is a factory-less chip company, so the actual production of the chips will be in the hands of Microchip Technology, a company based in Chandler, Arizona that specializes in manufacturing microcontrollers, EEPROM chips, and other IC products.

NASA awarded the two companies a $50 million contract, with a 3-year wait for final delivery of the new X280 processor. X280 will become the computing backbone High Performance Space Computing (HPSC), a NASA initiative to design and develop new spaceflight technology capable of delivering “at least” 100 times the processing power of currently used systems using the same amount of energy.

The X280 will replace the RAD750 processor, a legacy PowerPC-based processor manufactured by BAE Systems and used on several NASA missions since 2005. The Perseverance rover and the recently launched James Webb Telescope are two of the most celebrated space projects made possible by the RAD750. CPU.

The X280 CPU currently under development for the HPSC system will use 8 SiFive Intelligence RISC-V vector cores with 4 additional cores, delivering the computing power surge that NASA predicts before the retirement of today’s space computers. The significant increase in performance will help open up new opportunities for autonomous rovers, imaging, spaceflight, guidance systems, communications and other elements of a space exploration mission, SiFive says.

Another important feature of the X280 will be its resistance to radiation: the HPSC will be specially designed to survive in harsh and hostile space environments, manage many space operations without possible assistance from Earth, and ensure its ability to operate and provide reliable results for the most critical operations.

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