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New computer chip cuts costs, adds efficiency to space systems

The layout of the Virtex-5 field programmable gate array, consisting of the various functions imbedded in the columnar architecture, is displayed. (Courtesy of Xilinx, Inc.)

The layout of the Virtex-5 field programmable gate array, consisting of the various functions imbedded in the columnar architecture, is displayed. (Courtesy of Xilinx, Inc.)

Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. -- Air Force Research Laboratory's Space Vehicles Directorate officials partnered with Xilinx, Inc. five years ago to design new field programmable gate arrays that would reduce costs, increase effectiveness of their satellite circuitry and withstand the damaging effects of radiation in the cosmos.

After performing preliminary investigations at the circuit level and chip testing, Xilinx officials created a flight version in 2009, designated the Virtex-5 QV. It will likely be onboard a test satellite scheduled to launch in November and is 1,000 times less sensitive to space radiation than the commercial equivalent.

"We wanted to do things efficiently and focus on affordability," said Creigh Gordon, the senior electronics engineer at AFRL's Space Vehicles Directorate. "One way to accomplish both is to use field programmable gate arrays as the basis for satellite computers. By doing so, the cost for the non-recurring (research and development) significantly decreases.

"An FPGA has a huge, positive impact on spacecraft project funding as there can be up to an 80 percent savings in electronic hardware expenses," he said. "Military space systems become much more affordable, and U.S. commercial endeavors in the cosmos become much more competitive."

An FPGA is a chip with an array of prebuilt processing blocks, which can be configured and interconnected by the end user to perform very complex processing functions.

"In the past, we've see our radiation-hardened chips go into nearly every military satellite system, and our radiation-hardened microprocessors were also used on NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers on the surface of Mars, " Mr. Gordon said. "We are eager to see where the new radiation-hardened Virtex-5 FPGA chips will go and what new capabilities they will make possible."

In September, several major satellite builders will receive Virtex-5 QV prototypes as part of an early access program. Production units will be available in mid-2011.

"With the Virtex-5 FPGA, the focus is on affordability in digital electronics. Our investment in this project has enabled the Air Force, as well as other government entities such as NASA and commercial space ventures, to benefit from the technology," Mr. Gordon said. "The Virtex-5 QV will have a huge impact on all of the Air Force's space systems."