Astro Pi Mk II, The New Raspberry Pi Hardware Headed To The Space Station

Back in 2015, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake brought a pair of specially equipped Raspberry Pi computers, nicknamed Izzy and Ed, onto the International Space Station and invited students back on Earth to develop software for them as part of the Astro Pi Challenge. To date, more than 50,000 young people have had their code run on one of the single-board computers; making them arguably the most popular, and surely the most traveled, Raspberry Pis in the solar system.

While Izzy and Ed are still going strong, the ESA has decided it’s about time these veteran Raspberries finally get the retirement they’re due. Set to make the journey to the ISS in December aboard a SpaceX Cargo Dragon, the new Astro Pi MK II hardware looks quite similar to the original 2015 version at first glance. But a peek inside its 6063-grade aluminium flight case reveals plenty of new and improved gear, including a Raspberry Pi 4 Model B with 8 GB RAM.

The beefier hardware will no doubt be appreciated by students looking to push the envelope. While the majority of Python programs submitted to the Astro Pi program did little more than poll the current reading from the unit’s temperature or humidity sensors and scroll messages for the astronauts on the Astro Pi’s LED matrix, some of the more advanced projects were aimed at performing legitimate space research. From using the onboard camera to image the Earth and make weather predictions to attempting to map the planet’s magnetic field, code submitted from teams of older students will certainly benefit from the improved computational performance and expanded RAM of the newest Pi.

As with the original Astro Pi, the ESA and the Raspberry Pi Foundation have shared plenty of technical details about these space-rated Linux boxes. After all, students are expected to develop and test their code on essentially the same hardware down here on Earth before it gets beamed up to the orbiting computers. So let’s take a quick look at the new hardware inside Astro Pi MK II, and what sort of research it should enable for students in 2022 and beyond.

Souped-up Sensors

At this point we’re all well aware of the near-desktop performance afforded by the Raspberry Pi 4, so it should go without saying that its a huge upgrade over the pokey Raspberry Pi Model B+ from 2014 that students have been working with until now. Just as important as the improvement in raw computational power, having access to fifteen times the memory will enable more complex tasks that simply weren’t possible before.

To make use of all that extra power, the new Astro Pi MK II includes a wider array of sensors in addition to upgraded versions of the ones which were used on the original hardware. The new Sense HAT V2 still includes the gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer as well as sensors to measure humidity, temperature, and pressure inside the ISS. But this time around there’s also a passive infrared sensor (PIR), as well as a color and luminosity sensor.

But perhaps the most exciting sensor upgrade comes in the form of the Raspberry Pi HQ camera. The 12.3 megapixel Sony IMX477 sensor is a huge improvement over the dinky camera module that was available back when the first Astro Pi was launched. It can also accept CS-mount lenses, meaning teams that send their camera-aware code up to the Astro Pi MK II will have the option of having different lenses and filters installed while their project is running. For example, with the appropriate filter, students will be able to perform normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) observations to monitor and study the distribution of plant life on the Earth’s surface.

An AI CoPilot

When students really need to kick things into high gear, they’ll also have the option of utilizing the Coral USB Accelerator that will be accompanying the Astro Pi MK II. This application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) designed by Google connects the Pi’s USB 3.0 port and can perform up to four trillion operations per second while consuming only two watts of power.

Developed specifically for machine learning, this low-power device can run TensorFlow Lite models at incredible speeds. The official documentation says that, when paired with a desktop-class processor, the Accelerator can run the MobileNet v2 image classification and detection model at nearly 400 frames per second.

Obviously its capabilities will be reduced when working in conjunction with the Pi 4, but it will still be a huge boon for teams that want to do machine learning in orbit. When combined with the new high-resolution camera, the computer vision prowess of the Accelerator should provide some fascinating opportunities for real-time Earth observations.

Like the Astro Pi itself, the Coral USB Accelerator has been clad in a custom designed aluminum enclosure that’s clearly designed to help passively dissipate heat. But otherwise, it’s identical to the commercial unit that you can purchase right now for $60 USD. This is the same sort of logic that lead the ESA to select the Raspberry Pi in the first place, as it allows schools to put together affordable development environments using largely off-the-shelf components.

Astro Pi: The Home Game

So when will students, or Hackaday readers, be able to build their own Astro Pi MK II? Unfortunately, that’s not immediately clear. Obviously you can pick up a Raspberry Pi 4 and a Coral USB Accelerator right now, but the word is that chip shortages have delayed efforts to produce the new Sense HAT in large quantities. Students taking part in the program can use the web-based emulator to test their code for the time being, with the teams selected to move on to Phase 2 slated to get the real thing by November. Given the success of the original Sense HAT it seems inevitable that the new version will work its way to retail eventually, but it probably won’t happen this year.

A DIY version of the original Astro Pi

Similarly, while the project’s website says they’ll be up for download in the near future, the CAD files for the new Astro Pi MK II enclosure aren’t yet available to the public. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has a detailed guide on building a replica of the original Astro Pi, complete with information on 3D printing the case, so hopefully something similar is being put together for the December launch of the new version.

Back in 2017, a company produced a $250 USD replica of the original Astro Pi case that was so accurate, Eben Upton himself said they were nearly indistinguishable from the flight-ready units. Once the CAD files are out we might see a similar effort to duplicate the new version, but don’t expect it to be any cheaper this time around.

Even if you’re too old or not on the prerequisite side of the planet to take part in the official Astro Pi Challenge, the platform developed by the ESA and the Raspberry Pi Foundation is still attractive for citizen scientists and experimenters down here on Earth. Hopefully by the time the Challenge entries start getting uploaded to the International Space Station in Spring of 2022, we’ll be able to follow along at home with our own model of the hardware.

22 thoughts on “Astro Pi Mk II, The New Raspberry Pi Hardware Headed To The Space Station

  1. “near-desktop performance afforded by the Raspberry Pi 4” lol

    quick and dirty benchmark of cpu-only tasks shows raspi 4 is about 20% faster than my 6 year old arm chromebook rockchip 3288. but somehow it’s too slow to run unaccelerated multimedia programs like mpv that run smoothly on the rk3288, driving the same resolution screen using the same Xorg fbdev output on both. at computing, it is barely competitive with a budget cellphone, and its peripherals are so bad that in most applications it doesn’t even deliver at that level.

    my budget desktop is 970% faster than the rk3288, for comparison. i mean the desktop cost about 10x as much and draws a ton more power and needs active cooling. they’re not in the same league. there are some “pretty good for __huge caveat__” sort of statements you can make about raspi 4 but “near-desktop performance” shouldn’t make the list

      1. it’s certainly true that the high-resolution videos struggle without acceleration on any device, but the kind of 0.5-1.0 megapixel stuff (such as what i get out of youtube-dl -f mp4) that is most of my collection plays fine through fbdev on every machine i’ve owned since 2003.

        on the rk3288 chromebook, i use fbdev because the included mali acceleration has closed-source drivers that are quite difficult to get working on debian (though i did succeed once, it was a big hack and i didn’t bother to refine it)

        on the raspi i use unaccelerated fbdev because the raspi driver stack is such an incredibly bad heap of crap. the only player that seems to work with it is omxplayer, which, i don’t know if y’all have noticed, is not as good a player as literally any of the others. mpv on raspi does not keep a steady video frame rate even with the 0.3megapixel stuff i got in literally 2003. it’s really astonishing. there are multiple stacked driver problems in all of the different access modes. and no one ever got to the bottom of any of them because it’s all so closed source. and when people do figure out a hack that ‘works’, it doesn’t work on the next edition of the firmware, which btw, is undocumented.

        1. Sounds like you probably need a heatsink, and perhaps a bit of overclocking, though with how low you demands are perhaps a less garbage SD card would be enough (that is the biggest killer of Pi performance I’ve ever come across – even a usb2 caddy of slow spinning rust drive runs faster than a bad SD card), also worth checking your power supply is actually adaquate…

          I know a Pi is fine for this sort of thing as I have watched a great many things on my Pi 4 in various formats, and the only thing it can’t just do is anything much over 1080P without hardware acceleration (and it can actually do on CPU alone multiple CPU rendered VM’s running a 1080p desktop playing 1080p videos just fine – a daft test to see how far I could push it – worth noting I have the 8gb model for that – and needed it with all the duplication having multiple VM’s runnign creates, and it was at least somewhat overclocked – but from what I’ve seen basically all Pi4 can go up to 1.8Ghz without extra power, give them some more juice (and the cooling to cope) and 2.4 isn’t impossible on some)

          Yes its GPU doesn’t have hardware acceleration for everything under the sun enabled, but for what it does do hardware accelerated it really does work flawlessly. If you don’t want to use Raspbian (yes pi foundation that is what its bloody called) then you have to expect putting in some work to get everything as well tuned, but on the Pi foundations provided install things do tend to just work…

          You also can’t compare a max 15W power draw SBC to a minimum of probably 30W just to stay stable at idle, spiking to over 200W type desktop/laptop, that is significantly larger physically, and uses way more power… Its just not at all comparable.

          p.s. I also personally quite like omxplayer, though mostly on the older pi – it works nicely, is easy to control and command… Now I have the Pi 4 I don’t use it much as I used to…

          p.p.s I also use my Pi4 as basically my daily driver – the now ageing workstation only goes on when I really need heaps of threads or a somewhat potent gpu – so mostly for gaming as the Pi can handle most CAD I end up doing – I’m not creating Wintergaten’s MMX in CAD or the like much – like most of us I expect the common CAD task is a few small parts to make up some widget/bracket not an entire from scratch mechanical assembly of several thousand parts…

          1. come on man, it has 2GB of RAM (which is a lot, i don’t care what anyone says). mpv, libraries, Xorg, drivers, even the video file are all cached in RAM. it’s not the SD card that’s slowing it down. i remember you from the last thread where you said the same thing. i said, you did 1080p decode to prove it could, not to watch the movie. if you watch the movie, you’ll notice your “oh wow, it works!” has a big whoppin asterisk at the end of it. it doesn’t actually work. i wish it did. it seems like it should. the raw numbers seem to be there. but it doesn’t. and when you search for why it doesn’t work, you find dozens of people on dozens of forums all reporting the same problems and every fix they come up with is an undocumented feature that doesn’t work on the new firmware.

            but we agree on one thing, it is absolutely insane to compare it to a desktop.

          2. No it actually bloody works, I use the damn thing daily, and it plays almost anything I throw at it just fine – can I find files it won’t play well, sure, but then I can do that on any computer – just use poor player software, awful codec, stupid resolution etc. And if you happen to have a file like that and really must play it on the Pi its not impossible to process it to a format the system likes.

            Obviously can’t claim its perfect at all things, and I’ll agree the hardware is capable of more than the current software stack lets it show. But it does just work fine for almost anything reasonable you care to throw at it..

            Even if everything on the ‘active’ video player process is in RAM doesn’t mean a crappy SD card can’t gum the works up – there are other tasks going in the background that can drag the whole system down if they end up stuck waiting on the SD card – its still a small core count machine so that one small process slowing a thread down can count rather more than you’d expect.

            Also worth point out that 2GB of RAM is shared between GPU and CPU – and that could also be your problem if the GPU isn’t being allowed enough RAM (not sure why it shouldn’t have enough bar misconfiguration – as 2GB should be enough, but I have no idea what else you are doing on it). I’ve not got a 2Gb Pi4, but do have a 2gb CM4 and its never been a problem running things on that – but I don’t tend to use it as a ‘desktop’, its a compute module… So maybe it would run into some issues if I tried.

            Seriously give your Pi a heatsink, and try it off a USB disk or other SD card till you find one that actually works right, it probably will just work…

        2. I run a RPi4 4gig in a passive heat sink case, slightly overclocked and it works just fine as a desktop machine. I can do dev work and productivity stuff quite well. On it’s second screen I have the browser which is alright. Sure video’s take a bit longer to start and are a bit choppy sometimes, so I force that stuff to lower resolutions where I can. I don’t need 4k or even 1080 in most cases. Just don’t care that much about that.

          1. I’ve never seen choppy video on this Pi myself, but so much of that is going to be down to the source, player and just how many pixels you are asking it to drive.

            Personally I found running at 4K was alright (at least on one monitor) across the CM4 and Pi4 I’ve played with overclocked/heatsinked or not, certainly very useable but drop to 2K screen resolution and it will just handle things effortlessly it previously struggled enough to notice on.

            Though again I mostly use this 8gb model, and its got a truly overkill heat sink on it (made from an old x86 heat sink), so as I can its cranked up pretty high, but also actually has the minimum clock rate fiddled with – allowing it to drop lower than the default – seems to save a little energy while its not working, definitely idles around 2 Celsius lower, and hasn’t effected stability.

    1. Yes we all use our desktops to play video and games, we don’t write code or run tests or use ssh. We expect one computer to be able to handle every task we can even imagine. We all need the latest and greatest computer because nothing less will do.

      1. i put my desktop in the basement since i realized it’d been a decade since i’d last used it for anything other than sshing into it to run compilers and openscad and so on. you do you *shrug*

          1. Even after four decades of programming and debugging for a living, I still can’t imagine why anybody would want four monitors, except to make seem like what they’re doing seem important. I guess it’s an ‘operator’ thing?

          2. @PerniciousSnit – That is going to be so varied on size of monitor, how good your eyes are, and exactly what you are doing.

            I effectively have 4 monitors now with the larger monitor with fancy PiP and tiling modes, and while its generally not required to use it like 4 monitors I definitely do – you have the computer you are monitoring as it chugs through whatever process waiting for it to error or require input (its surprising how often you can see in the corner of your eye it threw an error in the text by shape/colour as it rapidly scrolls past), the one you are actively working on/debugging, and then multiple pages of references you need for that work, probably from another ‘computer’ – though in my case its often a Virtual machine, or Pi..

            It is generally just used as one monitor though, but even then the extra screen real estate is really handy – for instance I sometimes run a virtual tabletop D&D game, sometimes with video chat – that means I want my notes, the VTT (I quite like Fantasy Grounds – buying a perpetial ultimate license is a bit pricey upfront, but well worth it, trial it with the subscription model if you like, the old one ran great under Wine and the newer unity powered version just works, lots of great features you can use to make the accounting parts of the game quicker and easier etc), and video chat and its so much nicer if they are all in one space and big enough to see comfortably all the time.

      2. Well, I haven’t played games on my computer(s) in years and years now. That said, I hooked up a RPI-400 for fun, and used it for day to day activities for a few days using a 500GB external SSD as the OS/storage ‘drive’. For development, gcc, gfortran, lazarus/fpc, etc. ran just fine. Same with youtube videos and such. ssh and other tools that I use just worked. So desktop performance is ‘relative’ to what you want to do with it.

        On topic, nice to see the RPIs heading to space for some more educational activities in space for students around the world. All good.

        1. “That said, I hooked up a RPI-400 for fun, and used it for day to day activities for a few days using a 500GB external SSD as the OS/storage ‘drive’. For development, gcc, gfortran, lazarus/fpc, etc. ran just fine.”

          I mean, saying “GCC runs fine” is silly – yeah, and a “hello world” compilation on an old 486 was practically instant, too. But try to compile a modern kernel on it and you’ll be waiting days.

          Plus, I mean, this isn’t “code-a-day” : CAD and EDA are *super* common for tasks for people here, and my (ludicrously high-end) desktop struggles with them sometimes, so a Pi would just be comical.

          1. Sure the RPI isn’t for everything. I have my Ryzen 3900X based system for tasks like freeCad, KiCad, cross compiling, etc. with a big 4K monitor if horse power is needed/desired… But for general purpose stuff the RPI4 seems quick enough, Small file/media server with RPI4 is popular. Octo Print for 3D printing… Or even as a ‘school’ computer in the computer lab. Lots of uses for these small computers. They are much more than just a micro controller to turn LEDs on/off. Point is, just use the right tool for the right job. One of my RPI-4s is running 24×7 running simh and driving a 1/3 size PDP 11/70 front panel for old OS simulations. At the same time it is my pi-hole for DNS, redis server, time server, small file server, and in-house web-server. Booting off a USB 3.0 500G SSD drive (Samsung T5 ) for reliability (compared to the SD cards). It is still very lightly loaded…. So could be doing much more with that one!

    2. I’d like to point out a Pi4 is actually very much more potent than nearly every computer in my family including my stuff and my techie Dad’s – the only thing that really beats it across the board is my now somewhat old workstation, the next best rival wins at a few tasks perhaps, but is definitely slower in most every way technically, and just makes gains because some things really are much better optimised for x86 etc…

      Just because you think Desktop means 400W or more monster able to run AAA games or something doesn’t mean we all do… Even brand new low end desktops costing vastly more and being much more power hungry don’t blow the Pi4 away for most common tasks…

  2. Love the camera lens sticking out the back, what a cool upgrade…

    Wonder how much of a performance up tick it will really be – as I seem to recall the original astro-pi had to have a great deal of heat sink surface because the touchable surfaces were not allowed (by nasa?) to get over 30 or 40 C or something.. Well this heatsink doesn’t look anywhere near able to to actually keep that cold and radiate the heat a Pi4 can kick out – so I assume they must be throttling thermally to meet that target temperature on the surface, so while it no doubt will be quicker I assume it probably won’t be anything like the performance you can get out of one on the ground…

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