NASA adds advanced network technology to focus future space telescope

A new network interface will let one of NASA's advanced space telescopes look more deeply and accurately into the cosmos.

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope - slated to be launched in 2013 - will be getting a network interface called "SpaceWire" which is a standard for high-speed links and networks for use onboard a spacecraft, easing the interconnection of sensors, mass-memories and processing units. The telescope is a 21st century space observatory that will look back more than 13 billion years in time to understand the formation of galaxies, stars and planets and the evolution of our own solar system, NASA said.

SpaceWire helps eases the construction of high-performance onboard data handling systems, reduces system integration costs, increases compatibility between data handling equipment and subsystems, and encourages re-use of data handling equipment across several different missions. NASA said to understand the benefit of SpaceWire, you can compare the speed of a dial-up modem to a high-speed broadband Internet connection. SpaceWire connects multiple spacecraft components on super-fast links to get a quicker result.

Technically the low-power SpaceWire is a packet switching network that uses worm-hole routing switches for routing packets across the network. Worm-hole routing was adopted because it minimizes the amount of buffer memory needed in the routing switches, an important consideration for implementation in radiation tolerant chips where memory is at a premium, according to the SpaceWire Web site. SpaceWire routers also support group adaptive routing where traffic can be shared across two or more links connecting a pair of routing switches or a routing switch to a destination node. The idea is that if one node or link fails it will retransmit data automatically over another link.

SpaceWire was developed by the European Space Agency, and has been adopted and improved by a team at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)) and Command and Data Handling engineering team has developed a small and very low power microchip that sends and receives SpaceWire signals at speeds of over 200 Mbit/sec, according to a NASA release.

The new higher bandwidth from SpaceWire enables the JWST to support the mission's science instruments which employ 66 million detector pixels. This is the largest number of pixels ever used on a space telescope, and it will let the telescope study more of the universe.

NASA's SpaceWire technology has also accelerated the development of the telescopes's instrument electronics. The JWST team delivered the SpaceWire technology - which is packaged in a digital, low power (1.5W), high speed (66Mbps) Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) computer chip - to JWST partners including prime contractor Northrop Grumman, Lockheed, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and the Canadian Space Agency. As a result of this JWST technology development, other missions are considering SpaceWire include the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R.

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