It’s been a decade in the making and now a computer made entirely by the hands of Montana State University students has a date with the moon.
Literally, NASA has selected it to be a part of a demonstration by as soon as next year.
They call it “RadPC.”
It’s made entirely with off-the-shelf materials, making it cheaper and smaller than anything NASA has now. That’s exactly why they have their eyes on it, selecting it alongside eleven other projects to fly to the moon to test it out.
“They’ve gotten experience flying it on balloons and rockets that just go up and come down, satellites, on the space station,” says Professor Brock LaMere, MSU Electrical & Computer Engineering. “It really gives them kind of an additional experience beyond just building a piece of electronics. It gives them that whole mission life cycle experience that they would not get working on a different project.”
Professor LaMere says it has been a decade-long experience of lunar proportions.
And the product, at least as of now, is the size of a toy block.
“The purpose of this technology is to provide a computer for future space missions that can provide increased computation above what they currently have and also provide resistance to space radiation,” LaMere says. “We’re a technology demonstration on a lunar landing program. So what NASA wants to do is, they’re building a heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System and what they want to do is they want to send unmanned lunar landers to the surface of the moon.”
LaMere says that can force computers to crash.
So, using everyday materials anyone could get, he adds they’ve found a cheaper alternative for an improvement.
“Current computers that NASA uses and aerospace companies use some hardening techniques, making them resistant to radiation and it causes them to be quite expensive and also run pretty slow compared to the computers we have on Earth,” LaMere says. “We call it off-the-shelf parts. You can’t have these missions cost a billion dollars each so every part of the mission, from the computers to the rocket fuel to the spacecraft, itself —you have to consider cost to make this practical.”
LaMere says the amount of work that has gone into it is amazing, but just how many students who have put their heads and hands into it, as well, that’s even more so.
“This has been 100 percent built by MSU students and primarily undergraduate students,” LaMere says.
In about 10 years, over 130 students have worked on RadPC, including second-year grad student Chris Major.
“It was pretty awesome,” Major says. “Thinking that this thing is going to go into space is a combination of excitement and terror.”
Major adds being a part of the final stages of a decade’s worth of work is rewarding on its own.
“We had people who were originally working with crazy amounts of code that they’d have to recompile every time,” Major says. “Eventually, people started putting together, say, our operating system so now it’s easier. This next step is exciting because I get to see what everyone else has done beforehand and I hope I can carry that forward.”
It’s NASA’s Artemis project, which will attach computers like RadPC’s to landers bound for the moon.
Someday, maybe even Mars, an experience, overall, that will have Professor LaMere looking up, following the effort that dozens of students made happen.
“It’s surreal, to be honest with you,” LaMere says. “To think that we’ve been working on this idea for 10 years. We’ve received, I think this is our 11th grant from NASA to support this work. They have funded this since its beginning where it was just wired on a bench to all the way to getting it on the space station and building a satellite and now actually putting it on the surface of the moon.”
LaMere says there’s still plenty of legwork to be done.
First, his students are working hard to get the computer down to its final form and will be able to test it again on a satellite that will be launched this fall.
They plan on having RadPC ready to fly to the moon by late 2020.