BOZEMAN — When an innovative computer developed at Montana State University heads to the moon next year for testing as part of a NASA mission, it will carry an unusual cargo: short messages submitted by Montana students and anyone else who wants to help memorialize the trip.
The MSU researchers who developed the radiation-tolerant computing technology called RadPC are inviting the public to submit text of roughly 50 words, accompanied by an optional image, to be stored in the memory of the Rubik's Cube-sized computer prototype when it takes flight, likely aboard a SpaceX rocket in summer 2023.
“We had room for some extra memory in the computer and thought this would be a cool way for people to connect with the project,” said Brock LaMeres, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, who conceived the technology more than a decade ago.
RadPC was one of 12 science and technology payloads that won a coveted spot in 2019 to journey to the lunar surface as part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, in which several landers developed by private companies will carry small payloads to the lunar surface. The moon journey will be RadPC’s biggest trial yet, following two tests on small satellites launched from the International Space Station, three stays on the space station itself, as well as shorter trips to the edge of outer space on sounding rockets and high-altitude balloons. One of the satellites contained aluminum plates inscribed with the roughly 2,000 names of MSU’s graduating class of spring 2018.
Since its inception, the project has involved 62 MSU undergraduates, 17 graduate students and nearly a dozen faculty, including staff engineers in the Space Science and Engineering Laboratory housed in the Department of Physics in MSU's College of Letters and Science.
The onboard computers that control spacecraft — including satellites involved in weather forecasting, GPS and long-range communications — must contend with high-energy radiation emitted by the sun and other celestial bodies. Traditionally, oversized circuitry made of special materials has provided resistance, but that also made the devices more costly and cumbersome. In contrast, RadPC combines multiple ordinary computer processors with software to create on-the-fly redundancy, allowing computations to continue even if a radiation particle strikes and disrupts the computer's sensitive memory.
LaMeres suggested that messages inspire future generations and highlight the positive aspects of planet Earth or pay tribute to someone. For more information and to submit a message, visit montana.edu/moon. There, visitors can also find information about the Space Research Scholarship Fund, which LaMeres said helps support students who want to be involved in similar projects.