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FPGAs are microprocessors that can be reconfigured on the fly, through programming, to do different things. They can essentially be rewired, to change what the chip does, in ways that once would have required making a new chip.

This changes how probes can be reprogrammed in response to discoveries when they reach their destinations, or to work around damage to a probe, or to assign new missions once the primary missions are over, since probes often survive beyond the mission lifetime. ESA has some papers examining these possibilities listed here.

Have FPGAs already been used in this way? What possibilities do they open up for the future? What needs to be borne in mind?

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  • $\begingroup$ Much of what you're asking is answered in those ESA papers. There are 45 FPGAs aboard Rosetta. Their biggest problem is susceptibility to radiation damage. $\endgroup$ – Hobbes Jun 17 '15 at 19:08
  • $\begingroup$ @Hobbes I found a summary on pg 11 of the 4th paper on the list of how they can be used, but it gives me little sense of how missions are truly affected by their use, or how significant they are. The papers are very technical, from scanning them i've found almost nothing i can relate to - other than the radiation issue. $\endgroup$ – kim holder Jun 17 '15 at 19:23
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Here is a list of some space probes that used FPGAs and how they were used.

  1. Mars Rover and Lander
    • "main brain" of the rover vehicle, controlling the motors for the wheels, steering, arms, cameras and various instrumentation
    • control the crucial pyrotechnic operations during the multi-phase descent and landing procedure
  2. Optus C1
    • Apply signal processing algorithms to communications data coming from Earth
  3. Grace
    • Sensor
  4. FedSat
    • As a critical component of the High Performance Computing (HPC-I) payload, the reconfigurable nature of Xilinx FPGAs enable satellites to be rewired without having to be retrieved,
  5. Rosetta
    • Wide range of lander and orbiter instrument applications including the main computer, power system, mass memory controller and the antenna point control
  6. NEAR Shoemaker
    • Navigation, command, telemetry and scientific data collection applications
  7. International Space Station
    • Mission critical apps
  8. Mars Pathfinder
    • Camera controls and communications
  9. Mars Rovers
    • various mission-critical digital logic functions, including power management, attitude and orbit control, command and data handling, and instrumentation and telemetry

from: http://esl.eng.ohio-state.edu/~rstheory/iip/RadHardFPGA.doc

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  • $\begingroup$ "The two key advantages FPGAs have are price and flexibility...The cost of developing a low volume ASIC for a radiation environment is orders of magnitude higher... RAM and flash based FPGAs offer flexibility in space in that they can be programmed remotely and up loaded to the device in space. This offers advantages in reliability, mission changes, bug repair and time multiplexing of hardware resources. The Mars rover mission used a Xilinx FPGA that had not been completely designed at the time of launch. The FPGA configuration was up loaded to the space craft two months after the launch." $\endgroup$ – kim holder Jun 17 '15 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ ^ That is from the linked document, it was relevant enough I wanted to put it here. $\endgroup$ – kim holder Jun 17 '15 at 22:38
  • $\begingroup$ I don't have an exact list, but there's a ton of sub-bullets under #7. I personally have worked on three separate projects which are onboard ISS w/FPGAs. Not sure if you'd call them "space probes" but they're used in space. $\endgroup$ – Chuck Claunch Mar 5 '17 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ As an fyi only; TESS will use FPGA's to help with processing of large amounts of image data. See quoted section in this question. It has not been launched yet. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Jun 3 '17 at 9:40
  • $\begingroup$ As another fyi, this comment about the use of FPGAs in satellites states "They weren't new when I built two of them into every one of the ~180 Planet Labs cubesats." $\endgroup$ – uhoh Aug 9 '17 at 6:58
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From a standpoint of "reprogrammability" FPGAs don't hold any advantage over any other processor. You can update/modify software on any type of system whether it's x86 or FPGA or any other architecture. The advantage of FPGAs is their parallel nature, the ability to do many things at once, and act as a state machine rather than a linear sequence of instruction crunching. For that reason, in the space industry (which I work in), FPGA programmers are very highly desired.

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