by Marshall Swearingen
MSU News Service
BOZEMAN, Mont. — In their quest to develop an improved computer that could one day be used in NASA spacecraft, Montana State University researchers have tinkered with their creation on the laboratory bench, dangled it from high-altitude helium balloons, sent it to the International Space Station and launched it into Earth’s orbit on a bread loaf-sized satellite. Now it will go to the moon.
NASA announced earlier this month that an MSU team led by Brock LaMeres has won a coveted spot on a 2020-2021 lunar mission that will be the biggest trial yet for the radiation-tolerant computing concept LaMeres conceived more than a decade ago.
“Talk about a moonshot,” said LaMeres, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering. “The dream has always been to get (this technology) that far out into space.”
The Rubik’s Cube-sized computer prototype, called RadPC, is one of 12 science and technology payloads selected to journey to the lunar surface as part of NASA’s Artemis lunar program. NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services project, which involves multiple landers developed by private companies, will provide the flights for the payloads. In a self-contained unit on one of the landers, RadPC’s task will be to show that it can withstand high-energy radiation particles emitted by the sun and other celestial bodies.
If it can do that, “it would mean it’s a proven technology that could be used in future lunar missions as the primary flight computer,” LaMeres said.
Traditionally, space computers have used oversized circuitry made of special materials to fortify against the radiation that bombards outer space. (Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field block that radiation from reaching the planet’s surface.) RadPC instead uses multiple inexpensive processors like those found in personal computers. The processors are programmed to operate in parallel, so that when a radiation particle disrupts one, the others recognize the fault, continue the computation and re-program any damaged computer memory.
“The idea is that we’re able to provide the same level of reliability at significantly lower costs,” LaMeres said. “And because we’re using off-the-shelf parts, we get the high performance and low power consumption of consumer electronics.”
The latest prototype will draw from everything LaMeres’ team has learned while testing and refining the concept with $2.5 million in NASA funding over the past several years. Following a successful test aboard the space station in 2017, a small satellite housing the computer was launched from the space station in 2018 and continues to orbit Earth. LaMeres’ team is currently wrapping up the design of a second satellite to demonstrate the computer that will be launched in late 2019.
As part of the current mission, LaMeres’s team will receive an additional NASA grant of $1.2 million. Partners on the grant are John Sample, assistant professor in the Department of Physics in MSU’s College of Letters and Sciences, David Klumpar, director of MSU’s Space Science & Engineering Laboratory, and Larry Springer, the lab’s director.
The new funding will support four full-time graduate students and several undergraduates while they work on the project in the Space Science & Engineering Laboratory, LaMeres said. Since its inception, the project has involved more than 130 MSU students, including about 110 undergraduates, he said.
According to NASA spokesman Grey Hautaluoma, although RadPC has been selected for the mission, the agency doesn’t yet know which lander it will ride on or when that lander will be launched. The mission is major step in NASA’s goal of establishing a human presence on the moon in 2024 as a steppingstone for a manned mission to Mars. The RadPC unit will also include sensors for measuring radiation levels on the moon, producing data that could benefit future, long-term human missions there, LaMeres said.
LaMeres said he was thrilled after receiving the call from NASA late last week. “It’s really surreal,” he said, “to think that we’re going to put a computer, one that MSU students built, onto the surface of the moon.”