BOZEMAN - A team of Montana State University researchers has received $100,000 from NASA to test a promising new computing technology that could soon be used in spacecraft and satellites.
The funding will allow the team to launch an advanced prototype, housed in a satellite the size of a loaf of bread, into orbit from the International Space Station, likely in March 2018. The ensuing year-long experiment will mark the culmination of a decade of developing the technology.
“This demonstration will test the technology in the most extreme environment yet,” said project leader Brock LaMeres, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in MSU’s College of Engineering.
The computer technology, called RadPC, takes a new approach to handling the intense radiation found in outer space.
On Earth, the atmosphere and the magnetic field generated by the planet's molten metal core shields computers and other digital devices against high-energy charged particles emitted by the Sun and other celestial bodies. In outer space, however, the particles can interfere with the functioning of tiny, sensitive transistors, the building blocks of modern computers.
Traditionally, space computers have used oversized transistors made of specialized materials to fortify against the radiation. But that makes the computers slow and expensive, and they still sometimes crash, according to LaMeres.
The MSU team’s RadPC instead uses multiple inexpensive processors like those found in personal computers. The processors are programmed to operate in parallel, and when a radiation particle disrupts one of the processors, the others recognize the fault, continue the computation and re-program any damaged computer memory.
“Our approach is to accept the fact that computers will crash, and to use elegant ways to recover from the crash,” LaMeres said.
LaMeres was central to conceiving the innovation, which has so far been tested in a particle accelerator, aboard high-altitude balloons and on small rockets that reach the outer limits of Earth’s atmosphere. Since December, a prototype of the technology has been operating aboard the International Space Station.
To build the satellite that will be used for the upcoming test, LaMeres’ team partnered with MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory, an interdisciplinary facility housed in the Department of Physics in MSU’s College of Letters and Science.
Undergraduate and graduate students at SSEL designed and built the radio transmission and solar power systems that will allow the satellite to communicate with the MSU researchers during its year in orbit.
“Our students have been helping to design and build this satellite, and now it’s going to go into orbit. It’s exciting,” said Todd Kaiser, head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.
“Research is a process,” he added. “You start with an idea and work toward a goal. With this one we’re getting to the point where we’re near the end of the mission.”
Launching the satellite from the space station is considerably cheaper than propelling it into orbit with a rocket, LaMeres said. To conduct the launch, his team has partnered with NanoRacks, a company that contracts with NASA to deliver scientific equipment to the space station.
The prototype will be sent to the space station in a spring-loaded box developed by NanoRacks during a routine delivery of food, water and other supplies. The space station’s robotic arm will aim the box, and when a hatch is opened, the spring will launch the satellite into orbit.
As it circles the Earth, the computer “is going to get an extreme bombardment of radiation,” LaMeres said. It will pass through areas over the Earth’s poles where the planet’s magnetic field actually concentrates the barrage of high-energy particles.
The computer will perform a routine of calculations and transmit the data to the MSU campus when it passes overhead. If the computer functions continuously and can recover from the anticipated crashes, it would mean that the technology would be ready to be used in other satellites and in spacecraft.
“Once we prove it at this level, we’d like to license it to large aerospace companies or startups,” LaMeres said.
The $100,000 grant, which came from NASA’s Established Program to Simulate Competitive Research, called EPSCoR, marks the 10th award LaMeres has received from NASA to develop the technology.
According to LaMeres, the roughly $1.5 million from those grants, over a 10-year period, has supported hands-on research for more than 50 MSU students, mostly undergraduates in the College of Engineering.
Contact: Brock LaMeres, email@example.com, 406-994-5987.
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