While the final hardware specifications of the Sprite are still in flux, the microcontroller unit that will serve as the spacecraft’s brain has been more or less set. Meet the TI MSP430.
The MSP430 is branded as an “Ultra-Low Power” processor capable of interacting with analog signals, sensors, and digital components. It’s a 16-bit chip, like the CPU in the SNES (or, if you Nintendidn’t, the Sega Genesis). Of course, if all goes as planned the Sprite won’t be playing Earthbound; it will be sending radio signals from orbit.
Since the MSP430 is a Texas Instruments product, it is in no way simple or straightforward. There are over 200 models of the MSP430 to choose from, and the KickSat team hasn’t specified exactly which flavor of the chip will fly on the Sprite.
TI is doing its best to pitch the MSP430 chip as a starting point for new MCU developers. In the summer of 2010, the company released the Launchpad – a low-cost platform centered around the MSP430 – and positioned the device in direct competition with the popular open-source Arduino microcontroller board (expect to read more about the Arduino later).
The square MSP430s, which are the likely candidates for the Sprite board due to their smaller form factor, are not compatible with the Launchpad. However, (if TI is to be believed) coding using the Launchpad should be very similar to coding for these smaller chips. While waiting for my Sprite development board to arrive, and after learning a little about programming microcontrollers, I’ll be getting acquainted with the 43oh using the Launchpad platform.