As of Dec. 14, the International Space Station has a new visitor: a Rubik's Cube-sized computer prototype, designed by Montana State University researchers to demonstrate an improved method for coping with the radiation of outer space.
The new computer technology, developed by Brock LaMeres, associate professor in MSU's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, could one day be used for navigation, communication and a variety of other purposes on the ISS, as well as on satellites and exploratory spacecraft such as Mars rovers.
"This is a big step in our push to create radiation-tolerant space computers that are more powerful and orders of magnitude less expensive than those currently in use," said LaMeres, who leads the "Radiation Tolerant computer Mission on the International Space Station" project, or RTcMISS (pronounced "Artemis").
On Earth, the magnetic field generated by the planet's molten core shields computers and other digital devices against high-energy charged particles that the Sun and other celestial bodies emit. In outer space, however, the radiation particles can interfere with the functioning of tiny, sensitive transistors, the basic components of computer circuitry.
"If a radiation particle is like a bowling ball, then a modern, miniaturized computer transistor is like a kiddie pool -- the ball makes a big splash," said LaMeres.
That's why the ISS and other spacecraft currently use oversized transistors similar to those found in older home computers, according to LaMeres.
"Older, larger computer transistors are like the ocean. The ball makes a relatively tiny splash," he said.
But the oversized transistors limit computer speed and are made of expensive, specialized materials to further resist radiation, he added.
"Our goal has been to find a way to use off-the-shelf computer parts, and modify the computer architecture -- the software -- rather than the size or the material of its parts," said LaMeres.
The MSU prototype consists of multiple computer processors operating in tandem. If a radiation particle strikes one of the processors and causes a fault, the other processors sense the fault and respond by reprogramming the damaged component in order to repair it.
Before being sent to the space station, LaMeres's team -- which over the past several years has included 36 undergraduate and 10 graduate students from MSU, as well as eight other faculty -- tested the technology in radiation chambers, on high altitude balloons and on rockets that reach the beginning of outer space.
"Getting Artemis on the ISS is a huge milestone," said Angela Des Jardins, director of Montana Space Grant Consortium and the Montana chapter of the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which is managed by NASA's Office of Education.
Artemis is funded by a competitive, $100,000 EPSCoR grant that LaMeres received in 2014. That grant was one of several follow-on grants that LaMeres has received since winning a $750,000 EPSCoR grant in 2010 to develop the computer technology.
"All of these tests are building up to proving the capability of this technology," Des Jardins said. "One day it might be used in deep space missions."
Data from the prototype, which bears a logo Bozeman second-graders designed, is being transmitted to MSU on a weekly basis, allowing LaMeres and his team to measure the computer's performance. The prototype will return to MSU for final analysis after six months of being tested on the ISS.
"We're really excited by what we're seeing," LaMeres said. "So far the computer is operating exactly how it is supposed to."
Brock LaMeres, MSU Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, (406) 994-5987, email@example.com
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