The Secret Behind Radiation Hardened IT Equipment in Space

The Secret Behind Radiation Hardened IT Equipment in Space


The Secret Behind Radiation Hardened IT Equipment in Space

From 1961- 1975, during the worldwide space race and when the United States was making history with successful moon landings, technology at the time was booming. However, the Apollo 11 computer had a processor which ran at 0.043 MHz; meaning the iPhone in your pocket has over 100,000 times the processing power of the computer that landed man on the moon! More than 50 years later, its no secret that technology has developed into something we’d never dreamed possible. So, you’d think we’d at least be using updated systems in space today. Right?! Wrong. The computer hardware on board spacecraft computers is far from the newest and best around. 

Until the recent Space X Flacon 9 rocket, space travel was conducted with outdated processors. Even the International Space Station (ISS) is operating with using two sets of three command and control multiplexer demultiplexer computers from 1988. Even the chips that made up the original Sony PlayStation in 1994 are faster! Well luckily for all future astronauts and space cowboys alike, the Space X Falcon 9 carrying a Dragon spacecraft sent to the ISS was the first commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) high-performance computer to orbit the earth. It just so happens to be among the first supercomputers in space.

What is Radiation Hardening and Why is Necessary?

Radiation hardened electronics can simply be defined as electronic components that have been designed and tested to provide some level of protection against penetrating radiation. If not protected, radiation can cause the computer components to malfunction, damage circuitry or cause the electronic device to completely shut down. Radiation hardening is essential when the electronics are used in environments where they will be exposed to high energy ionizing or space radiation.

There are three types of space radiation concerning electronic computer components used in space: galactic cosmic rays (GCRs), high energy solar radiation, and radiation belts. Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCRs) are electrons, protons or neutrons that originate outside of our solar system. High Energy Solar Radiation are emissions from the sun due to solar flares or explosions of stored magnetic energy. Radiation Belts contain trapped electrons and ions of varying energy levels. GCRs and solar radiation routinely reach the earth; therefore, they are present at all of the earth’s atmospheric levels. 

For manned spaceships and satellite, continuous and reliable operation depends on being able to withstand space radiation. If you don’t already know the answer to the question, then you’re probably asking yourself why do we use spacecraft with such outdated processors? Well, by NASA’s standards and the laws of physics, not just any computer can go into space. Computer components must be radiation hardened, especially the CPUs. Otherwise, they tend to fail due to the effects of ionizing radiation. 

There is more modern hardware in space like the laptops used on the ISS. But those laptops are not high-performance computers. They’re just ordinary laptops that are expected to fail. Actually, there are more than a hundred laptops on the ISS, and most are obsolete. In order to perform serious data mining, we want high-performance computing. Afterall these are the reasons we’re doing experiments on the space station. 

The typical way to radiation-harden a computer that will be used in space is to add redundancy to its circuits or use insulating substrates instead of the usual semiconductor wafers on chips. That’s not only very costly but laborious as well. Scientists believe that simply slowing down a system in adverse conditions can avoid glitches and keep the computer running.

The end goal is to develop a functional supercomputer for operation in space without spending years hardening it. By using off-the-shelf servers and custom-built software, scientists are trying to harden a computer using software by throttling its speed when there’s a solar flare or other radiation hazard. If possible, astronauts will have the latest devices available, increasing their onboard capabilities.

The Effects of Space Radiation

There are a number of ways that computer components designers can radiation-harden their devices. One of the most common is to harden for total-ionizing-dose radiation – or the amount of radiation the device is expected to withstand for its entire life before problems occur. A typical requirement is for 100 kilorads of total-dose radiation hardness. The advancement of today’s advanced electrical components is changing the total-dose picture. Specifically, the shrinking size of circuits on today’s most modern chips is decreasing their exposure to total-dose radiation.

This trend is a double-edge sword because the steady shrinking of chip geometries also makes these devices even more vulnerable to other kinds of radiation effects, namely single-event upset (SEU) and single-event latchup (SEL). If not protected, radiation can cause the computer components to malfunction, damage circuitry or cause the electronic device to completely shut down.

Intel vs AMD – The Best CPU


AMD vs Intel CPUs

Performance, security, and everything else you need to know about which CPU is right for you.

AMD vs Intel CPUs, which is the best CPU for you? Technology buffs have been debating this for years. Intel, has by tradition, had the advantage, but AMD’s Ryzen processors are shaking up the market. We’ve put together a quick snippet to help you decide which is right for you. Mainly focused on the pros and cons of each, and everything related to performance and security. Because let’s be real, that’s really what matters here.

AMD vs Intel: The battle over performance

For a majority users, the difference between any of the current generation AMD and Intel CPUs is minor, if at all noticeable. They’re all perfectly capable of surfing the web, streaming your favorite shows, running office applications, multitasking between all of those, and more. The only true way to reveal their differences is to run demanding workloads.

For multithreaded application workloads, the AMD Ryzen 7 compares nicely with the Intel Core i7. This AMD Ryzen is actually a bit slower in some cases, but faster in others. Most users would likely never notice the difference between the two. Now if we step up a level and compare the Intel i9 and AMD Ryzen 9. The AMD Ryzen 9 appears to be roughly 25 percent faster in multithreaded workloads, thanks to having 50 percent more cores. For this, AMD is looking extremely attractive in the realm of content creation. 

When moving over to the gaming world, the differences between Intel and AMD are more noticeable. The fastest Intel CPUs usually lead AMD’s best Ryzen parts by 5-10%, and in some games the gap can be as large as 15%.  Some of this gap is due AMD’s earlier Ryzen CPUs being a bit slower in games because games don’t usually make use of more than four to six CPU cores, resulting the extra cores remaining inactive. However, that’s starting to change. The other part of the comparison is latency. Latency refers to the time to access and process data. AMD’s Ryzen parts have higher cache and memory latency than Intel’s, causing a slightly worse overall performance in sensitive workloads like games. 

AMD vs Intel: Who has top notch security?

Security is an ambiguous term that can be difficult to explain in the CPU world, as most problems track back to software, not hardware. Intel processors and platforms used to be thought of as more secure than AMD processors. Then Meltdown and Spectre transpired.


Technology security researchers discovered side-channel attacks that compromised the security of data. Meltdown affected AMD and Intel platforms in different ways, where variations in firmware and operating systems were needed to address the problem. Spectre was a bit more abstract and mostly targeted Intel CPUs. Since the earlier security holes were made known, several new holes have come about.

The latest set security holes includes RIDL, ZombieLoad, and Fallout. These were classified as Microarchitectural Data Sampling (MDS) attacks, that target Intel CPUs, but don’t affect AMD processors. Solutions are in the works, with some improvements already in place via OS and firmware updates. Intel’s 9th Gen CPUs also include some hardware changes to help address some of these exploits. 


Intel’s processors have been compromised by side-channel attacks far more often than AMD CPUs, but it’s still unsure what the future holds. Because Intel CPUs hold a larger market share, and each set of fixes slightly reducing performance, some are beginning to speculate whether Intel CPUs will fall behind AMD CPUs. 

Looking to sell your old CPUs and upgrade?

AMD vs Intel: Who should you chose?

When dealing with an everyday workload, the highest end AMD CPU and the highest end Intel CPU won’t deliver totally different outcomes. There are clear differences in certain scenarios, but the CPU isn’t the foundation of PC performance that it once was.

That being said, AMD CPUs, offer remarkable value and performance throughout the whole range of chips produces. From the low 3600 models right up to the high end 3950X model, the ROI is fantastic with AMD CPUs, even for gamers. Not to downplay the quality of Intel CPUs, but if they want to stay competitive with AMD innovations, they need to lower prices. Although, there are those users who will hold out because they’re brand loyal and only interested in buying Intel products.

When choosing your next CPU upgrade, it is best to look at the individual performance of the CPU you want to buy. AMD Ryzen processors offer the best bang for buck throughout almost the entire value range. Intel does hold a slight edge in gaming at the very top end, but AMD promises existing motherboards will continue to work with new AMD chips in 2020, guaranteeing an upgrade path. In the end, it’s really up to what you prefer.