Top 5 Programs Finding New Uses for Old Technologies

Using Old Computer Technology to Run Spacecraft

Remember the dinky, painfully slow processors and teeny amounts of memory of the 1980s and early 1990s computers -- the ones that ran your favorite video games like molasses? You probably assume that by now these puny computers are being used as doorstops. Well, guess again.

The computer hardware that controls the vital functions of both manned and unmanned U.S. and European spacecraft tends to be ancient, low-power stuff that's nowhere near as powerful as the gadgets you have in your pocket or on your desk, let alone the talking supercomputer HAL in "2001: A Space Odyssey." But space agencies aren't keeping otherwise obsolete computer technology alive out of nostalgia. Any computer chips taken into space have to be hardened to protect them against the high-radiation environment there, and then tested exhaustively to guarantee their reliability. It's safer to use the old and slow but proven designs than something more up-to-date that may fail [source: Heath]. Besides, it doesn't necessarily take a super-fast computer to run even a massive orbital satellite. The Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, operated for close to two decades with a main computer powered by an Intel 486 processor, and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, launched in 1999, made important scientific discoveries with the help of an on-board electronic brain powered by the equivalent of a 386 [source: Moseman].

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  • Bazile, Dan. “Finding new uses for the centuries-old flywheel.” Aug. 30, 2010. (Dec. 6, 2010)
  • Berardelli, Phil. “Tapping Tesla to Save Trapped Miners.” Science. Aug. 20, 2010. (Dec. 6, 2010)
  • Heath, Nick. “Space Exploration: The computers that power man’s quest for the stars.” Sept. 25, 2010. (Dec. 7 2010)
  • Henry, Chuck and Bergeron, Karen. “Compost Use in Forest Land Restoration.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. July 2005. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • “Innovative Uses of Compost.” Environmental Protection Agency. October 1997. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • Moseman, Andrew. “Scientists Fixing Hubble Contend With Antiquated Computers.” Popular Mechanics. Oct. 24, 2008. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • PR Newswire. “Lockheed Martin Conducts Successful MagneLink In-Mine Test.” July 21, 2010. (Dec. 7, 2010)
  • Taub, Eric. “New Uses for an Old Plug.” The New York Times. Aug. 30, 2010. (Dec. 6, 2010)
  • “The Basics of Composting.” (Dec. 7, 2010)


What's the Fascination With Number 23?

What's the Fascination With Number 23?

Many people believe that the number 23 has magical properties. HowStuffWorks looks at the number.

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