BAE Systems moves into third generation rad-hard processors

BAE Systems is moving into a third generation of radiation-hardened spacecraft processors based on the IBM PowerPC 750

May 1st, 2002

by John Rhea

MANASSAS, Va. — BAE Systems is moving into a third generation of radiation-hardened spacecraft processors based on the IBM PowerPC 750 — and competing with existing systems in the process.

This evolution extends the organization's two previous generations, the 16-bit RH1750 and the 32-bit RAD 6000 to the new 64-bit RAD750 while retaining the previous software, and represents a 10-fold improvement in performance at no additional cost, explains Laura Burcin, BAE Systems program manager for the project at the semiconductor operations of the company's Information & Electronic Warfare Systems facility in Manassas, Va.

Company leaders are not talking much about prices at this stage of development, but Burcin says price should compare to the present RAD6000 line, which she quotes at about $200,000 per board. She does quote an availability of 10 to 12 months after receipt of order, adding that RAD750s are currently on order for 40 computers to be used in 18 spacecraft.

More than 100 of the previous-generation RAD6000 radiation-hardened processors are currently operating in space, BAE officials say. These computers were produced initially by the IBM Federal Systems Division and later by Lockheed-Martin, when those companies owned the Manassas facility.

The new processors, which are ceramic and use ball-grid-array packaging, process information at 240 million instructions per second with a clock speed of 133 MHz. They are available on the 3U Compact PCI board, developed under contract to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

A companion application-specific integrated circuit was developed simultaneously with the board and provides the bridge between the central processor, main memory, and PCI bus. Burcin stresses that the instruction set is compatible with the RAD6000, so software that runs in 32-bit devices also runs in the 64-bit version.

The design is relatively conservative, BAE engineers concede, representing half-micron feature sizes for the equivalent of 10 million transistors per chip. Further refinements are planned, however, and the goal is to push feature size down to a quarter micron within the next year and a half.

Twenty years ago, under sponsorship from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, IBM was one of the first companies to shrink feature sizes smaller than 1 micron at the Manassas facility, and many of the current employees have stayed on through the IBM and Lockheed Martin ownerships.

Competing with the BAE Systems line is the present radiation-hardened single board computer based on the Motorola PowerPC 603E from the Honeywell Inc. Space Systems group in Clearwater, Fla. Honeywell experts fabricate the processor in Plymouth, Minn.

The 603E is not quite as robust as the 750, but offers greater radiation hardness in such severe radiation environments as the Van Allen Belt orbits around the Earth, and in weapon systems applications in which it is essential to counter electromagnetic phenomena, says Michael Fleming, president of DSP Architectures in Vancouver, Wash.

In a presentation on his company's PC 603E line last year, Gary Brown, an engineer at the Clearwater facility, outlined a performance spectrum embracing throughput speeds of 70 million instructions per second (MIPS) at 50 MHz, 222 MIPS at 133 MHz, and 2-3 gigaflops (billions of floating operations per second) sustained for the top-of-the-line configuration.

The Honeywell family, also based on a scaleable open architecture, uses as its engines the general purpose PowerPC 603E, the ADSP-21029 digital signal processor, and the DSP-24/MMU-24 vector processor.

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