ESA research aims to integrate multiple projects on missions

Software engineers in Ireland are working with the European Space Agency (ESA) to better integrate multiple science projects on future mission launches.

The Irish Software Engineering Research Centre (Lero) and ESA have signed a contract worth €300,000 (£265,000) for an 18-month research programme beginning in September 2011, which will also aim to achieve a greater level of overall autonomy for future missions.

Modern space-research missions are critically dependent on numerous complex software subsystems for their success. These include flight-control software, software tailored for each specific scientific experiment carried aboard and the operating system software that manages everything.

Failure in one component could jeopardise the correct behaviour of the rest and so a major research effort goes into the verification of their functioning.

Speaking to The Engineer, Mike Hinchey, Lero’s director (and former director of software engineering at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center), said cost cutting will increasingly see multiple projects bundled on a single spacecraft.

‘One launch is very expensive, so if you can send five things together it’s an awful lot better,’ he said.

‘But the concern is you don’t have data interfering with one another; you don’t have one device picking up the wrong data from another device, so we’re working on proving that the system will segregate the different projects that are flying.’

Lero’s solution will involve a software framework based on a ‘secure separation kernel’ to allow all the scientific experiments and flight-control software to be safely isolated from one another, so that failure of one component cannot lead to the failure of others.

The second aspect of the research for ESA will be looking at how to achieve greater levels of automation with entirely new computing paradigms.

‘On the missions that I’ve been looking at, we’re trying to do things far out in space that just can’t be managed by humans as the round-trip delay between signals is too great,’ said Hinchey.

‘Say you have a spacecraft that has a 40-minute round trip [data] delay, when it sends back a signal saying “I’ve got a problem”, even if you can fix it right away, by the time you’ve done it it’s been 40 minutes and you’ve lost the mission. If you’re pushing for that level, [spacecraft] need to manage themselves — you can’t do it remotely.’

Lero will head a team that will also include software engineers from Limerick University and Trinity College Dublin.

‘The European Space Agency does all these things already and it’s very good at it but we’re trying to raise the game for future explorations and missions,’ Hinchey said.