Raspberry Pi, the tiny single board computer that has proved to be such a sensation in recent years, is set to hit a new milestone by returning to the International Space Station (ISS) with better specs.
The UK-designed computer was first put into space by British European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake in December 2015 in the Principia mission.
The computers have been programmed by 54,000 students in 26 countries for tasks like looking back at Earth from space and monitoring what crew members are doing on ISS.
ESA flagged two challenges in what it calls called Mission Zero and Mission Space Lab. The former required young people to write a program in the Python language and this year gives users the chance to vote for the names of the computers.
Mission Zero invites people to write a Python program to take a humidity reading onboard the ISS that’s displayed to the astronauts with a personalised message. Mission Space Lab lets teams of young people run scientific experiments on the Astro Pi units aboard the ISS.
“The challenge is to design and write a program for a scientific experiment that enhances our understanding of either Life on Earth or Life in Space,” says ESA.
The new ESA Pi units are a Raspberry Pi 4 Model B with 8GB of memory, and include Raspberry Pi High Quality Camera, one of Google’s Coral Machine Learning Accelerator, a color and luminosity sensor, and a passive infrared sensor.
Also included are a gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, and sensors to measure humidity, temperature and pressure. Plus there’s a LED matrix for visual feedback.
“The new hardware makes it possible for teams to design new types of experiments,” says ESA.
The new hardware will let crew take sharper snaps of Earth in full colour. It also allows for a higher quality optical filter used with an IR-sensitive camera.
“Using the Machine Learning Accelerator, teams will also be able to develop machine learning models enabling high-speed, real-time processing,” it says.
The Astro Pi units will be shuttled to space in December and should be in use by 2022.
“The Astro Pi units, in their space-ready cases of machined aluminium, will travel to the ISS in December on the SpaceX Dragon Cargo rocket, launching from Kennedy Space Center. Once the resupply vehicle docks with the ISS, the units will be unpacked and set up ready to run Astro Pi participants’ code in 2022,” the Raspberry Pi company said.
The pandemic played havoc with production of the space-ready Raspberry Pis.
“Manufacturing was made significantly more challenging by the pandemic, not least because we weren’t able to attend the factory and had to interact over video calls,” says Raspberry Pi’s Olympia Brown.
“Once we had the case and hardware ready, we could take on the huge battery of tests that are required before any equipment can be used on the ISS. These included the vibration test, to ensure that the Astro Pi units would survive the rigours of the launch; thermal testing, to make sure that units wouldn’t get too hot to touch; and stringent, military-grade electromagnetic emissions and susceptibility tests to guarantee that the Astro Pi computers wouldn’t interfere with any ISS systems, and would not themselves be affected by other equipment that is on board the space station.”