Fast forward to the past: Technologists test 'game-changing' data-processing technology

Nov 27, 2012
Goddard technologist Jonathan Pellish holds a Goddard-developed digital test board (larger) and the IRAD-developed daughter card containing the analog-based data-processing integrated circuit. The daughter card snaps into the digital test board and will be used to test a number of spaceflight processing applications. Credit: NASA/Goddard/Pat Izzo

It's a digital world. Or is it? NASA technologist Jonathan Pellish isn't convinced. In fact, he believes a computing technology of yesteryear could potentially revolutionize everything from autonomous rendezvous and docking to remotely correcting wavefront errors on large, deployable space telescope mirrors like those to fly on the James Webb Space Telescope.

"It's fast forward to the past," Pellish said, referring to an emerging processing developed by a Cambridge, Mass.-based company, Analog Devices Lyric Labs.

So convinced is he of its potential, Pellish is meeting with scientists and engineers to explain the technology's capabilities and is using fiscal year 2013 NASA Center Innovation Fund resources to build printed circuit boards that researchers can use to test the technology's performance for a range of scientific applications. Pellish works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. He also has carried out preliminary radiation-effects studies to see how the technology's architecture holds up under the encountered in space.

"I wouldn't do it unless I really believed in it," Pellish added. "This is one of the few things I've seen that is really different than what others are trying to do. I think this technology could fundamentally change the way we carry out onboard processing."

Analog-Based Microchip

The new technology is an analog-based microchip developed with significant support from the (DARPA). Instead of relying on tiny switches or transistors that turn on and off, producing streams of ones and zeroes that computing systems then translate into something meaningful to users, the company's new microchip is more like a . It can accept inputs and calculate outputs that are between zero and one, directly representing probabilities, or levels of certainty.

"The technology is fundamentally different from standard , recognizing values between zero and one to accomplish what would otherwise be cost prohibitive or impossible with traditional digital circuits," Pellish said.

The processor's enhanced performance is due to the way the technology works, he explained. While digital systems use processors that step through calculations one at a time, in a serial fashion, the new processor uses electronic signals to represent probabilities rather than binary ones and zeros. It then effectively runs the calculations in parallel. Where it might take 500 transistors for a digital computer to calculate a probability, the new technology would take just a few. In other words, the microchip can perform a calculation more efficiently, with fewer circuits and less power than a digital processor—attributes important for space- and power-constrained spacecraft instruments, Pellish said.

Although "there has been an overwhelming amount of positive support for the technology within Goddard" since Pellish began introducing colleagues to its capabilities, he is the first to concede that the technology isn't appropriate for all space applications.

Fast Fourier Transform

Because of its efficiency and inherent design, however, it's especially ideal for computing fast Fourier transforms (FFTs), and more particularly the discrete Fourier transform, a ubiquitously used mathematical algorithm in digital-signal processing. Among other things, Fourier transforms decompose signals into their constituent frequencies and are used to generate and filter cell-phone and Wi-Fi transmissions as well as compress audio, image and video files so that they take up less bandwidth.

Among other products, the company has developed an analog-based integrated circuit geared specifically for computing Fourier transforms. The team will use the technology, which the company donated, to assemble several custom circuit boards. "We'll take the hardware and see what it can do with our data and applications," Pellish explained.

One of the first applications the group plans to target with a version of the FFT integrated circuit is wavefront sensing and control, the computational technique for aligning multiple mirror segments, like those that are flying on the Webb telescope, so that they operate as a single mirror system.

In addition, Jeffrey Klenzing, who works with Goddard's Space Weather Laboratory, wants to evaluate the technology's use for on-board data processing, particularly for studies of the sun. "For a typical sounding rocket application, we send all data down and perform fast Fourier transforms on the ground. However, for satellite missions, this is not feasible given limited telemetry," Klenzing said. "A chip for performing rapid, reliable FFTs would be very useful for such heliophysics missions particularly with the push toward smaller, low-power satellites such as CubeSats and nanosats."

Pellish also believes autonomous rendezvous and docking and other applications requiring precise locational information would benefit from the analog-based technology. "We're trying to create a new market at NASA for analog processing. I believe it will give us a competitive edge. If we can push this, it could revolutionize how we do onboard data processing."

Explore further: New oscillator for low-power implantable transcievers

Related Stories

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope gets 'SpaceWired'

Oct 25, 2007

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will use a new advanced technology network interface called "SpaceWire" that enables the components on the telescope to work more efficiently and more reliably with each other.

Explained: The Discrete Fourier Transform

Nov 25, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- In 1811, Joseph Fourier, the 43-year-old prefect of the French district of Isčre, entered a competition in heat research sponsored by the French Academy of Sciences. The paper he submitted ...

The faster-than-fast Fourier transform

Jan 18, 2012

The Fourier transform is one of the most fundamental concepts in the information sciences. It’s a method for representing an irregular signal — such as the voltage fluctuations in the wire that conne ...

Recommended for you

Microsoft beefs up security protection in Windows 10

5 hours ago

What Microsoft users in business care deeply about—-a system architecture that supports efforts to get their work done efficiently; a work-centric menu to quickly access projects rather than weather readings ...

US official: Auto safety agency under review

18 hours ago

Transportation officials are reviewing the "safety culture" of the U.S. agency that oversees auto recalls, a senior Obama administration official said Friday. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been criticized ...

Out-of-patience investors sell off Amazon

18 hours ago

Amazon has long acted like an ideal customer on its own website: a freewheeling big spender with no worries about balancing a checkbook. Investors confident in founder and CEO Jeff Bezos' invest-and-expand ...

Ebola.com domain sold for big payout

18 hours ago

The owners of the website Ebola.com have scored a big payday with the outbreak of the epidemic, selling the domain for more than $200,000 in cash and stock.

Hacker gets prison for cyberattack stealing $9.4M

22 hours ago

An Estonian man who pleaded guilty to orchestrating a 2008 cyberattack on a credit card processing company that enabled hackers to steal $9.4 million has been sentenced to 11 years in prison by a federal judge in Atlanta.

Magic Leap moves beyond older lines of VR

23 hours ago

Two messages from Magic Leap: Most of us know that a world with dragons and unicorns, elves and fairies is just a better world. The other message: Technology can be mindboggingly awesome. When the two ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

MrVibrating
5 / 5 (1) Nov 28, 2012
Analog computing seems the next-best thing to massively-parallel and even quantum computing, and deserves more research and coverage. I suspect AI would benefit greatly from its development.

Digital tech has advanced to the stage where it can simulate all that an analog system does, but rather than simply obviating the need for analog, perhaps it should be a launch pad for their co-development - after all, isn't 'natural' information processing both analog and digital? Our senses use spatiotemporal transformations, and in all likelihood, our brains too. Not to mention the field and particle interactions we're made of... makes you wonder if our overriding compulsion towards switching things on and off really, really quickly, hasn't neglected more elegant solutions?