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Supporting the NASA Vision...

NASA's Vision for Space Exploration has renewed our spirit of discovery, and has charted a new course for human exploration of the cosmos. To achieve this vision, NASA is developing some of the most technologically advanced spacecraft, systems and robotic explorers ever created. Only through the advancement of computers, their ever-increasing levels of computational performance, and the development of ‘intelligent' software, will this vision become a reality.

The Research Institute for Advanced Computer Science (RIACS) is making significant technological contributions in support of the NASA Vision. From methods and technologies for developing mission critical software and autonomous software systems, to advanced information management systems, mission simulation systems, and vehicle health management technologies, RIACS is creating a broad array of software to meet NASA's current needs and enable upcoming missions.

Managing Enterprise-wide Research and Development

NASA's Space Exploration Vision is focused on three broad goals: returning humans to the moon, preparations for future manned missions to Mars, and learning more about the universe and the origins of life.

Accomplishing these goals requires the coordinated efforts of thousands of NASA civil servants and contractors collaborating on the development of new technologies. Two RIACS developed technologies, NX and Program Management Tool (PMT) are helping make such large scale information and project management possible. NX is an Agency wide, web-based document repository and collaboration system that provides individual users and groups a centralized system for managing documents, images, email, and other information. What's more, NX also brings together various informational databases within NASA, allowing users to perform a single query search both within documents (such as MS Word files, PDF files and Excel Spreadsheets) and across multiple databases.

Program Management Tool (PMT) is another web-based system that provides a robust environment for managing and tracking the status of research and development projects and programs within NASA. By using standardized documents, spreadsheets and presentations as the user interface, PMT allows managers to work offline gathering information and easily synchronize their work when they re-connect to the network. To input information into PMT, users simply submit their documents to the system, either via file upload, email or by dragging and dropping. PMT automatically imports the data, eliminating the need for users to copy and paste information.

In one case study of 70 projects at NASA, it was discovered that by manually copying and pasting information between documents and online databases, 40% of the records in the online database had different content than what was in the up-to-date source documents. By integrating innovative automation into an web-based information management tool such as PMT eliminates this discrepancy, dramatically improving information accuracy and integrity across the Agency.

Impacting NASA Missions

Beyond information systems, RIACS technologies have also had a direct impact on NASA mission operations. For example, during the recent Mars Exploration Rover (MER) mission, a software application entitled MAPGEN was used to automate much of the rudimentary process of creating daily activity plans for the rovers. With high level guidance from a human operator, MAPGEN would create an optimized activity sequence for the rovers to perform each day, taking into account operational constraints such as power availability, the capabilities of the rovers, time of day, and memory availability. It has been estimated that this automated capability increased scientific return between 20% to 30% per day for the mission.

Another important initiative for RIACS is NASA WorldWind. This world browsing application is being advanced as a mission operations and planning tool, allowing data to be layered within a scientifically accurate 3D navigable recreation of a planet. Users begin with a satellite view of the planet, and then can zoom in, revealing more detailed information as they get closer to a planet's surface. By combining this layered data delivery method with the power of the Internet and distributed computing, WorldWind is able to deliver terabytes of NASA planetary information to users all around the globe. This open-source application is currently available for download by the general public, giving users access to NASA scientific data for Venus, Earth, the Moon, Mars, and Jupiter.

Mission Critical Systems

Computer software plays a vital role in the complex systems required for both robotic and human exploration of space. Flight control software for spacecraft and robots automate many activities necessary to safely place this very expensive hardware in orbit. If a software system were to fail at any step along the way, the results could be catastrophic, resulting in the loss of mission hardware or worse, the loss of human life.

Therefore, it is imperative that software be exhaustively tested prior to being put into service in such mission critical situations. RIACS is pushing the envelope in software verification and validation (V&V) by integrating tools and techniques directly into the software development cycle. By taking this holistic approach, v&v can be performed every step of the way, increasing the likelihood of identifying and eliminating bugs early in the development cycle and thus lowering overall development time.

One such tool to come out of this research is Java Pathfinder, which can be used to verify and validate java-based embedded software. This tool has been used to help test software systems on such NASA missions as Deep Space One and the Mars Exploration Rover mission.

Systems Monitoring

Sending humans and their supplies into space is no easy task. To break Earth's gravitational pull and reach orbit, a spacecraft needs to reach speeds in excess of 25,000 miles per hour. This type of stress requires launch systems to be in perfect working condition in order to maintain operational integrity during flight.

While these launch systems go through rigorous testing during manufacturing, they still need to be transported to a launch destination. In addition, the time between manufacture and when they are put into service can be many months. Together, these factors could contribute to the rocket booster being outside of its operational specifications when it is finally called upon to send its cargo into space.

RIACS data fusion and analysis technology originally designed to help monitor human health in space is being applied to the field of non-destructive evaluation of solid rocket motors. Using Ultrasound and Computed Tomography (CT) scans, RIACS scientists are developing methods that can be utilized to analyze the integrity of solid rocket motors without having to dismantle the systems. Using this approach would dramatically improve flight safety while at the same time cutting operational costs.

In addition to monitoring launch system health, monitoring and managing the activities of numerous robotic assistants will also be an important part of successful missions. Integrating the tasks of astronauts, robots, surface command and mission control during EVAs (extra vehicular activities) will require new levels of system integration and robotic automation.

Mobile Agents is a RIACS-led NASA project that is working to integrate all of these players with automated planning and scheduling systems to radically improve the efficiency of planetary surface operations. Using a RIACS - NASA developed work system modeling and simulation environment entitled Brahms, the complex interactions of humans, robots and computer systems involved in planetary surface operations can be modeled. Once the models are created, work processes particularly suited for automation can be identified and ‘intelligent' software agents developed. These agents can then interact with humans via voice command as well as other agents and computer systems. ‘Intelligent' computer automation, such as that being developed in the Mobile Agents project, will dramatically increase the capabilities of robotic assistants and explorers, lowering overall mission costs and increasing scientific return.

Beyond NASA

While RIACS' advanced technologies are making real contributions to NASA's exploration vision, the Institute also works with industry and other governmental organizations to make its advanced technologies more broadly available. One example is in the area of Verification and Validation, where RIACS' Java Pathfinder tool was used to correctly identify a very subtle error in the Java version of DEOS, Honeywell's real-time operating system for business and commuter aircraft.

Many commercialization opportunities are also available with RIACS, and several technologies co-developed by RIACS and NASA have been licensed to both small and large corporations. One such recent example is NETMARK, an information integration and management technology which has been licensed by both Xerox Corporation and Black Tulip Systems. In both cases, these organizations have integrated NETMARK into existing information systems to provide the ability to seamlessly perform both context and content based searches concurrently across databases and documents.

In the government space, RIACS has the significant advantage of offering its broad range of products, professional engineering services and research and development capabilities via GSA schedule. Any government agency, program or project can procure these services by simply following the GSA procurement guidelines, saving government organizations considerable time and money versus having to draw up a new contract.

Through its long tradition of advanced technology development with NASA, and its growing stable of products and services for industry and government, RIACS is well positioned to provide key technologies to help any organization advance their capabilities and achieve their vision.


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