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Discovery DiscoveryMarch/April 1999
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MSU Spectrum Lab Officially Gets Underway with New Director


Alan Craig by Annette Trinity-Stevens

Picture a satellite, we'll call it Eyeball, sweeping past Jupiter's moon Europa. Eyeball has 31/2 minutes to probe for temperature, take pictures, test the chemistry and look for water before silently moving on.

No such satellite currently exists, but as the nations space agency goes deeper into space its going to require deeper kinds of memory, said Alan Craig, director of the new Spectral Information Technologies Laboratory at MSU.

The Spectrum Lab, approved by the Board of Regents last fall, plans to invent some of the computing technologies needed to make satellites like Eyeball a reality.

"They'll need revolutionary computers that can make satellites smart and adaptable about the tasks they need to do," said Craig, who directed a $14-million research program for the U.S. Air Force before moving to Bozeman four weeks ago. "They may need to be smarter than their human designers envision."

Today's computers have about 1 percent of the memory and processing power they would need to make Eyeball functional. The Spectrum Lab will focus on developing the right materials, components and actual prototypes of more high powered systems.

Lab researchers envision leaping a generation forward in memory,communications and data handling abilities by exploiting the interaction between light and crystals. Todays computers use electricity and silicon chips. The applications could include real-time military and medical imaging, weather and climate prediction, pollution modelling and computer-based drug design.

Right now the Spectrum Lab is one basement office shared by Craig and a visiting scientist. But a $3.4-million budget from the Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will bring about a dozen additional scientists to campus during the next year. Graduate and undergraduate students, too, will be doing hands-on research, said Craig.

The newcomers will join MSU faculty who have been working for several years on new methods and materials for massive data storage.

"There's a general view that no one material will work for every application as silicon has done [in todays computers]," said MSU physicist Rufus Cone. "Were looking at crystals and polymers, which basically are pressed plastics."

Crystals for those studies come from companies like Scientific Materials in Bozeman, which includes NASA among its list of crystal buyers. MSU chemists will work with the company to develop other materials for Spectrum Lab projects.

Another connection is with the MSU Optical Technology Center. It does research and develops products for Montana laser/optics companies. OPEC researcher John Carlsten, for example, will develop new lasers for the lab.

Electrical engineering faculty and students will be the ones to take the lasers, crystals and other components and build prototype devices, said graduate dean and electrical engineering professor Bruce McLeod

Standing ready to test those prototypes are MSU biologists John Miller and Gwen Jacobs. They study cricket brains in the Center for Computational Biology and need to record and process signals from tens of thousands of electrodes. Their work relates to how all nervous systems, including the human brain, process information from the outside world.

"Right now we can't get there from here," said Miller. "We can't record on that many channels and we can't analyze it on the fly, in real time."

The problem of capturing and making sense out of huge amounts of data cuts across many fields, Miller added. He see applications for advanced computational devices in hospitals as well as research and testing labs. Jet engine manufacturers, for example, could place sensors all over a test engine and collect information on vibration patterns. Analyzing those patterns in real time could help engineers predict possible failures, he said.

Craig, too, envisions industrial spin-offs from the lab to companies already in Montana or ones that may relocate here.

Annette Trinity-Stevens is the MSU Research Editor.

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