AF research aids Mars rovers' historic flight

Radiation-resistant computers developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory helped steer NASA's Spirit Mars Exploration Rover to a safe landing on Jan. 4.

The lab's Rad6000 32-bit microprocessors, manufactured by BAE Systems North America of Rockville, Md., controlled the spacecraft, said Creigh Gordon, a lab space vehicle engineer.

The tiny microchips also will direct the rover and its later-arriving twin, Opportunity, as they search for signs of water on the red planet.

'NASA chose AFRL microprocessors because they are proven reliable, rugged and fully compatible with [NASA] systems," Gordon said in a statement.

The computers can withstand the harsh radiation of space and continue operating during long-term missions, he said. They control all data-stream telemetry between spacecraft and ground controllers.

'Through our efforts within the space vehicles directorate, the Air Force has made significant investments in radiation-hardened fabrication and the space electronics based on it,' Gordon said.

Contractors such as BAE Systems and others now can use the hardened CPUs to make better products for the Air Force, NASA, the Defense Department and commercial customers, he said.

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