A U.S. government laboratory is developing a supercomputer for satellites that could be tested in orbit before the end of this decade.

The project, which is under way at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, could be especially useful for satellites equipped with sensors that monitor Earth for nuclear weapon tests, according to Mark Dunham, senior project leader at the lab’s international, space and response division.

Current plans call for the supercomputer to be installed aboard an experimental spacecraft that is being built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Dunham said during a May 1 interview. He declined to name the host spacecraft.

Steve Tatum, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, said that the company could not verify whether the supercomputer payload was slated to be on one of its satellites by press time.

The supercomputer payload includes software that can be reprogrammed more quickly once it is in orbit by combining the processing power of the supercomputer with the satellite’s on board communications system. That will make it easier to reconfigure an operating satellite to meet changing mission requirements or take advantage of advances in technology that would otherwise not be fielded until the launch of new satellites, Dunham said.

Reprogrammable satellite radios have already been used in space, but those on orbit today receive information about 2,000 times slower than the system under development at Los Alamos, Dunham said.

The ability to reprogram a satellite is considered valuable due to the difficulty in upgrading satellites once they are launched, which can leave them operating with obsolete technology for years, Dunham said.

Though he declined to provide details, Dunham said that the ability to faster reprogram a satellite also provides flexibility to help the government monitor nuclear proliferation, which he said has become increasingly challenging since the end of the Cold War.

The total cost of building the supercomputer payload is expected to be $22 million, Dunham said. The Department of Energy is funding $14 million, with the Department of Defense funding the remainder in hopes that the technology could be used in the development of communications satellites, he said.

Dunham declined to comment on the project’s budget for 2006 and 2007, but said that it is very small this year, but is expected to quadruple in the 2007 budget as the team gets further along with building the hardware.

The Department of Energy has nuclear blast-monitoring payloads aboard GPS satellites today. If the experiment with the supercomputer proves successful, the technology could be incorporated on payloads aboard future generations of GPS satellites, Dunham said.

Los Alamos is building the payload with a team that includes chips made by Xilinx Inc. of San Jose, Calif., a radiation-hardened processor built by Atmel Corp. also of San Jose, and chalcogenide random access memory made by BAE Systems of Manassas, Va., according to a news release issued by the lab on April 26.

Chalcogenide memory is used today on products like rewritable compact discs. This technology, which uses electricity to rearrange molecules in the chalcogenide is attractive to the national security community because it does not depend on electrons to store information, making it naturally resistant to radiation in space that usually requires the use of heavy shielding.

The supercomputer is expected to offer more than 1,000 giga-operations-per-second of processing power – similar to the capability of computers that have occupied 50,000 cubic feet and used 50 kilowatts of power, according to the news release.

In comparison, the space-based supercomputer will only weigh about 18 kilograms, and consume just 80 watts of power, according to the news release.

The difference between the processing power on the supercomputer versus hardware used today in space could enable the difference between carrying a single channel of voice communications with two channels of video, Dunham said. Another analogy is the improvement between a single computer hooked up to one of the early versions of dial-up modems and a row of 25 computers equipped with the fastest available cable modems, he said.

The lab is hoping to begin testing prototype versions of the supercomputer on the ground near the end of 2006, Dunham said.

Comments: jsinger@space.com