Tag Archives: computing

Curiosity’s RAD750 radiation-hardened computer

You can’t use just any computer on a Mars rover.

Two British Aerospace RAD750 single board computers, as used aboard the Curiosity rover.

Mars has no magnetic field and its atmosphere is very thin, about 0.6 kilopascals compared with Earth’s 101 kilopascals. This means that the surface of Mars is bathed in cosmic ray radiation, about 500 millisieverts per year according to an instrument aboard the Curiosity rover. This is about one thousand times the dose on Earth.

The charged particles that make up cosmic ray radiation smashing into electrons in electronic circuitry can knock them loose and cause noise and current spikes. This can turn a binary 0 into a binary 1 or vice versa (a “bit flip”) and thus any computer hardware travelling outside Earth’s protective bubble must be “hardened” to protect it from radiation.

There are a number of ways that hardware can be hardened:

  • By the use of physical shielding, such as lead or tungsten, designed to stop energetic particles from reaching components.
  • By replacing the semiconductor wafers on which chips are built with insulators such as sapphire (aluminium oxide). It is orders of magnitude harder to knock electrons loose from an insulator than from a semiconductor.
  • By replacing the Dynamic RAM (DRAM) used in regular computers with the bulkier and more expensive Static RAM (SRAM) that is less susceptible to bit flips.
  • By the use of error-correcting code in the computer’s code that checks for the damage (e.g. bit flips) caused by energetic particles.

The RAD750 single board computer manufactured by British Aerospace is a favourite of spacecraft designers, even at a cost of $200 000 per unit. The RAD750 has been used on board Curiosity, Juno, the Solar Dynamics Observatory, the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the Kepler habitable exoplanet observatory, the Fermi gamma-ray space telescope and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Why is Quincy, Washington so popular with tech companies?

Quincy, WA is a small town (population 6750) in the north-west of the US. So why have technology giants Microsoft, Yahoo!, Dell, Vantage Data Centers, Sabey and Intuit all chosen to build huge data centres there? Quincy is now home to nearly 190 000 square metres (more than two million square feet) of data centre.

The answer is very simple: electrical power.

The town of Quincy is close to the Columbia river, the fourth largest (by volume) river in the US. There are fourteen hydroelectric dams on the Columbia river, two of which, the Priest Rapids Dam and Wanapum Dam, provide electricity to Quincy.

The Priest Rapids Dam

The Wanapum Dam

Hydroelectric power is cheap,* but more importantly from the point of view of data centre operators, it is very reliable. The reliability of the electricity supply to Quincy is better than 99.99% which is very important for “mission-critical” always-on services like cloud computing. Using renewable non-polluting hydroelectric power also helps service providers demonstrate their green credentials. Server farms consume a huge amount of electricity – more for cooling than for processing – and using hydroelectric power helps to reduce their associated carbon footprints.

* The local utility company, Grant County Public Utility District, offered electricity at a discount rate to attract users to the area.

Liquid cooling

Computer hardware produces a huge amount of heat when operating. Usually this heat is removed by a combination of heatsinks and fans

The grey heatsink conducts the heat away from the processor and the sink’s fins give the heatsink a larger surface area for the air moved by the fan to blow over. Some computers use very large heatsinks in order to do away with the need for a fan entirely, relying only on natural convection currents for cooling.

Some computers do away with fans by pumping water past the heatsink; water is a much better absorber of heat than air* and therefore the system uses less power for cooling.

Green Revolution Cooling have gone one step further – they actually submerge the computing hardware in a special non-conductive liquid. This liquid then circulates, transferring the heat away to an external evaporation tower.

They claim that their cooling system will pay for itself within 1-3 years.

* The specific heat capacity of air is 1.007 joules per gram per kelvin and the specific heat capacity of water is 4.187 J/g/K. This means that water will absorb more than four times the energy of the same amount of air for the same increase in temperature. Green Revolution don’t say what the specific heat capacity of the fluid they use is, but it’s likely to be greater than water’s.