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NASA’s Langley Research Center Contributions Part 2

Wed, 08/08/2012 - 4:25pm -- WCVE

WCVE Public Radio’s Charles Fishburne recently reported on the contributions made by researchers at Hampton, Virginia’s NASA Langley Research Center that aided in the success of the NASA Mars Scientific Laboratory mission to deliver the Curiosity rover to Mars.

In this Science Matters special report, Charles tells us there is still a lot of Langley expertise on the surface of Mars.

NASA–Imagine the Curiosity rover as it lands on Mars and begins to explore the Gale Crater. From the mast of the rover, the ChemCam instrument shoots a laser beam at a rock, burning into it while the instrument examines the smoke, allowing scientists here on Earth to determine its composition.

What controls the laser beam? And how does the data from the smoke make it back to scientists on Earth?

The answer to those questions lie within Radiation Tolerant Intelligent Memory Stack (RTIMS), which was originally developed by two researchers from NASA’s Langley Research Center.

Unsure of where the tiny device was headed, Jeff Herath and Tak-Kwong Ng had big hopes for where it would end up as they developed their technology to support the nearly exponentially increasing resolution of space based instruments. But they never imagined that it would hitch a ride to Mars on the Curiosity rover. On Curiosity, RTIMS is located at the rover's highest point, inside of the ChemCam Instrument on the Remote Sensing Mast (RSM). After Curiosity’s expected arrival to Mar’s Gale Crater on August 6, RTIMS will send important research data back to Earth, while controlling the laser beam on the ChemCam, an instrument that will study the compostition of rocks and soils, and help scientists determine if chemicals necessary to support life were, or even are present on Mars.

RTIMS’ highly reconfigurable architecture, developed by NASA Langley, allowed the ChemCam team to create the custom functions needed to bring their instrument to life. NASA Langley also provided the Intellectual Property core from the RTIMS technology to mitigate single event upsets, the change of state of a memory element caused by ions or radiation striking the device.

The RTIMS device was a perfect candidate for Mars because of its radiation tolerance, real-time data processing, reconfigurable computing, environmental ruggedness, and large memory array.

The costs and risks associated with it are small, as well as the size. It fits into the palm of a hand.

A new stacking technology, developed by 3D Plus, allowed different types of electronic parts to be built into a single RTIMS component. This new technique provides an 80 percent reduction in required volume or footprint for a given application. The stack weighs 60 grams, or a little more than 2 ounces.

Using the radiation mitigation techniques it will need on Mars, RTIMS has a memory array of 1 gigabit with triplication–that’s up to one billion bits of data. In a less challenging radiation environment, it provides 2 gigabits of error corrected digital memory.

“That’s the ‘Intelligent’ in RTIMS,” said Herath. “It is flexible enough to compute and to control elements. And its functionality can be adjusted for the intended operational environment.”

In the past, RTIMS has also been licensed and used for communication satellites.

“Back in 2003, RTIMS was the largest individual award from Advanced Information Systems Technology (AIST),” Herathsaid. “I want to thank them for that funding. It’s been worth the investment and I’m grateful that they took a chance on it, and our team.”

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