Embedded Hardware in Space. It’s Hard.

Learn more during talks by Eli Hughes and Peter Ateshian at ESC Silicon Valley next week.

Putting things into space has long been a human fascination, but it hasn’t always been easy. Indeed, sending hardware into orbit can be challenging to say the least. “It’s really hard,” said Eli Hughes, a research engineer at Penn State ARL, who will be delivering his talk at ESC Silicon Valley this year on how engineers can go from a base idea to getting something prototyped and ready to go to space.

The first challenge, said Hughes, is finding parts to build a prototype with. “Your component selection goes down from millions of parts to not many parts,” he explained, noting that anytime one is designing something for quick operation, state-of-the-art goes out the window. “You’re always bumped back five, 10, 15 years. That’s the first challenge.”

Adding to that challenge, of course, is then how to implement an algorithm on the parts you do have available, while keeping the entire project within budget, because using space-qualified parts can be expensive. That means finding the best available proxy parts that would work in space to test your theory before building your actual device with proper space parts.


ESC logoTake a Journey with "Mr. X."  Designing embedded systems for space applications is both costly and difficult. A particular challenge is developing lower-cost hardware to serve as a development model before designing fully qualified flight-ready hardware. This session, at ESC Silicon Valley , Dec. 6-8, 2016 in San Jose, Calif., will tear down hardware used for the development of a high-speed X-ray event detection processor. Register here for the event, hosted by Design News ’ parent company, UBM.


“You have to cobble together your own design tools, to prove the concept and get the investment money,” Hughes explained, noting that engineers had to pull together a development system representative of parts they have available just to prove that the algorithm or measurement system will work. Once that hurdle is overcome, it’s easier to get money to fund the next step, building flight-ready engineering models.

“We have an idea, we have an algorithm, but then to move it into hardware is really tough.”

Hughes’ team should know. They have been developing a new circuit to do high-speed X-ray event detection in space, which the team has fondly dubbed “Mr. X.”

“A good way to describe it is that what’s out there now is standard definition video and we’re trying to move it to a high-speed high-definition video.”

The "Mr. X" design incorporates a Xilinx Virtex-5 FPGA, high-speed QDR-II SRAM, and a ARM Cortex M0-based microcontroller to implement the core processing architecture. One of the constraints of this design was to use components that offered a clear path to rad-hard, flight-ready hardware. 

The "Mr. X" board allowed the engineering team to demonstrate the core functionality of the processing concept while being able to significantly improve the technology readiness level of the instrumentation.

The space-qualified FPGA Hughes’ team wanted to use, made by Xilinx, was based on a commercial part roughly 10 years old.

Unable to simply go out and buy the right development hardware, or source bits

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