In this digital age of technology, laptops are also playing a role in space exploration. In fact, space missions can’t be completed without laptop computers, along with desktop type workstations for astronauts.
Laptops used to explore space are special and rugged laptops that have to face harsh environments beyond Earth’s atmosphere. They have a crucial role in modern-day space missions.
In order to bring any laptop to space, it has to undergo rigorous testing phases to ensure its reliability in unique space challenges and environments.
In this article, you will learn what kind of laptop astronauts use in space, why they are special, or simply what laptop does NASA use.
The Crucial Need for Space Worthy Laptops
Before going into further details, let’s review why space laptops are special and essential for space scientists and astronauts.
Simply put, while staying on the International Space Station (ISS) or on any mission, laptops play a vital role as digital lifelines for astronauts. They keep them connected to mission control facilities on earth and perform complex scientific calculations and experiments.
Why are space laptops so special?
Space laptops are special because, unlike general or consumer-grade laptops, they must meet high standards and pass intensive tests to perform in space missions.
They must meet exact standards to become space worthy.
Do Laptops Have to Pass any Tests in Order to be used in space?
Yes, not only laptops but also other electronic devices that are meant for use in space have to go through a series of rigorous tests and meet specific criteria.
It will ensure their performance and reliability under tough conditions in a challenging and harsh environment of space.
Following are some of the key tests:
You might know that space has high-energy radiation coming from sun and other cosmic sources. They can interfere with and damage electronic devices and components easily.
That’s why laptops have to undergo different radiation tests to ensure their performance in this challenging environment without any interference or malfunction.
The temperatures in the space are quite extreme, ranging from extreme hot to extreme cold, keeping the position of object in view. Either it is facing sunlight or under shadow, it has temperature accordingly.
That is the reason laptop must be excellent enough to withstand extreme temperatures and undergo vacuum testing for simulation to deliver performance in space.
Vibration and Shock Testing
When space shuttle is launched or re-entered into space, the spacecraft experiences intensive vibrations and shocks.
Laptops must undergo this testing to withstand these vibrations, shocks, or mechanical stresses in space.
Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMC) Testing
It’s one of the most basic and crucial tests for any electronic device. All electronic devices must be EMC tested to ensure electromagnetic compatibility with other crucial mission’s spacecraft or on the ISS.
There is no electricity in space, and it is a precious and critical resource there.
So, a laptop must be designed and tested to save or conserve power. It should consume less energy with high performance to be entitled as space energy efficient.
The microgravity test is another critical laptop test for space missions in this era.
In this test, laptop’s performance is tested for proper functioning in a microgravity environment. For example, does its cooling system work efficiently in absence of gravity to assist airflow?
In this compatibility testing, it is proven that the material used to manufacture laptops isn’t outgassing or releasing harmful chemicals into space and its fully compatible with the space environment.
Redundancy and Fault Tolerance
There is no purchasing in space; that’s why critical systems like laptops have redundant parts or components. In the event of any faulty component, it can be replaced to continue mission.
It can have backup systems and fault-tolerant designs.
Software Functionality Testing
Software updates in space aren’t as simple as on earth; they are sent from earth, and astronauts have to follow strict instructions to complete the update process.
Apart from hardware components, software is also tested for space. In order to check their reliability and functionality in challenging space environments, they are tested and verified for radiation-induced errors.
Strict Safety Standards
Following safety standards can minimize the risk to spacecraft and their crews in space.
That’s why, when designing laptops, the safety first slogan is also followed. Laptop designs must comply with all safety standards set by NASA or any space agency.
Laptops and Desktop Computer Used by NASA
Normally, if we categorize NASA scientists, they use laptop and desktop computers on earth, in space travel, and at International Space Station (ISS) on spacecraft for their routine work.
Scientists on earth use laptops, desktop computers (workstations), and supercomputers at work facilities to run algorithms and software that keep them intact in spacecraft and keep astronauts in space.
We’ll focus on laptops used by scientists and astronauts in space. HP, Lenovo, and Dell are some of the renowned laptop brands used by them.
What Laptops Do NASA Astronauts Use?
Astronaut laptops are categorized into Portable Computer Systems (PCS) and Station Support Computers (SSC). PCS are used to interact with spaceships’ computer systems. While astronauts use SSCs for personal affairs and office purposes.
NASA is using Lenovo ThinkPad series laptops as they have passed several space survival tests mentioned earlier in the article. Further, NASA and their astronauts prefer rugged laptops as they are more reliable for space missions.
Laptop Used in Earlier 21’s Century
Back in 2003, NASA used the IBM ThinkPad A31p laptop, the IBM ThinkPad 760XD, and the 755C later. The NASA crew uses the Pleiades supercomputer on Earth to power their routine tasks.
Dell, HP, and Lenovo are famous laptop brands of workstations and laptops used by scientists and astronauts at NASA on earth and in space. The ThinkPad series laptop dominates among them because it has passed all necessary tests to survive in space.
Plus, NASA has a history of using rugged and reliable laptops and desktops for its missions. Some of the notable systems include:
Lenovo ThinkPad T61p
The ThinkPad laptop is normally used by astronauts and is the only certified laptop to use on the ISS. It has been used on NASA shuttle space flights since 1995 and on the International Space Station since 1998.
NASA used a popular ThinkPad T61p by Lenovo due to its rugged design and reliable performance. It can manage and survive tough conditions in space like extreme temperatures, radiation, microgravity, and material compatibility.
ThinkPad T61p laptops were used for normal tasks like email communications with emission control, calculations of scientific experiments, and data analysis of experiments quite often.
All major space agencies, like JAXA and ESA, including NASA, use ThinkPad laptops for their missions.
HP ZBook Workstations
Astronauts used the HP ZBook workstation when they needed more computing and high-performance tasks. ZBook workstations are famous for it.
Further, astronauts prefer HP laptops for 3D modeling, image processing, and running special scientific experiment software.
HP laptops can withstand the rigorous space environment due to their robust build quality.
NASA uses not only laptops but desktop systems as well. It has deployed desktops for specific applications. These desktops are task-specific, configured to operate flawlessly in the harsh environment of space.
A few years ago, NASA also used embedded systems (RAD750) to control various functions of spacecraft and collect data during missions.
These desktops have more power than laptops and are used for tasks that require high computing power and special hardware.
These tasks can be simulations, scientific data analysis, complex image processing, and other research related tasks either on earth or at international space station (ISS) during deep space exploration.
NASA conducted an experiment in 2017 and sent a totally game changing computer to ISS, i.e., the Hewlett Packard Spaceborn Computer.
It was capable enough to push the boundaries of space computing with an innovative cooling method. In order to provide maximum performance, HP introduced innovative cooling method in microgravity.
This Spaceborn computer used water cooling to dispense heat in the microgravity environment of ISS.
HP has tested off-the-shelf hardware performance of this computer in harsh environments and found it suitable.
HP’s successful experiment with a spaceborn computer has opened doors for advanced computing. That will lead to new possibilities for faster computers and data processing in space for future missions.
Customization and Redundancy
Space is totally different from Earth and needs radiation shielding, improved and efficient power consumption, and software for mission-critical tasks.
That’s why NASA used customized but consumer-grade laptops like the ThinkPad and ZBook to meet the special needs of space missions.
Redundancy is critical for the safety of astronauts and the success of missions. Therefore, more than one laptop, portable computers, and other devices with the same configuration are often onboard.
If one device fails, then the spacecraft crew can replace or switch to backup easily.
Laptops used by NASA Scientist on Earth
NASA scientists are using different desktop and supercomputers along with laptops at their work facilities on Earth. They include the mainframe computer IBM Systems Z for large-scale simulations and data processing.
A supercomputer like the Cray XK7 is used for complex tasks like climate modeling and aerospace simulations.
While talking about laptops, NASAA hasn’t mentioned or endorsed any specific laptop brand or model exclusively. It might be the reason that NASA engineers and scientists use a variety of laptops for routine work.
Upon searching, we found that NASA scientists have used ZBook series laptop. ZBook notebooks are famous for their excellent and robust performance in field work like computer-aided design (CAD) and engineering tasks.
Further, each individual scientist and department has different requirements, which can vary according to their project as well.
End of The Story
It is important for astronauts to have robust and space worthy laptops along with other workstations to survive in space. Space worthy laptops undergo many space survival tests like radiations, thermal, vibrations shocks, etc.
Although NASA hasn’t officially announced or endorsed specific laptops they use in space or on Earth, After research, we found that mostly astronauts use Lenove ThinkPAd series laptops like Lenoe T61p along with HP ZBook workstations.
Redundancy and customization are key parts of laptops and other electronic devices in space.
On Earth, NASA scientists and engineers use desktops, supercomputers, embedded systems, and different laptops according to their own and project requirements. It has been found that HP ZBook is used on Earth by NASA engineers and scientists.