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MSU computer reaches space aboard research rocket

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BOZEMAN – A computer built by Montana State University professor Brock LaMeres and his students rode into space on Oct. 23 aboard a rocket launched from the New Mexico desert.

Through a series of multiyear grants from NASA, LaMeres, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and his students have built a computer designed to withstand bombardment from the high-energy radiation particles that pass through the radiation shields of spacecraft.

While space radiation particles might not permanently damage electrical circuits, they can cause computers to crash. The goal set forth in NASA’s funding is to build a radiation-hardened computer from less-expensive commercial parts.

“We’ve been working on this radiation-tolerant computer system for five years,” LaMeres said. “It is very exciting when we get to see it launched into space where it can be put into the environment for which we built it.”

The suborbital rocket carried the experimental computer 77 miles above the Earth’s surface, where it traveled into microgravity at the beginning of space for three minutes before coming down at the White Sands Missile Range. Early indications are that the system survived the journey intact, LaMeres said.

“This is one more chance for us to demonstrate this technology before we send it up to the International Space Station, where it will face its most extensive testing yet,” LaMeres said.

This flight represents an incremental step in maturing the computer technology for use in a real NASA mission. In June of 2014 NASA announced that MSU is one of five institutions to receive a $100,000 grant and an opportunity to send a computer system into space for a ride aboard the International Space Station in 2015.

The space station experiment will allow the computer to be exposed to radiation for up to six months. LaMeres and Kaiser also received a $200,000 grant to demonstrate the computer as a stand-alone satellite in 2016, which will provide up to two years of radiation exposure.

LaMeres designed the radiation-tolerant computer system with doctoral students Justin Hogan and Raymond Weber who graduated in May, and master’s student Samuel Harkness. All four are in MSU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Harkness began working on the project as an MSU undergrad.

“It’s beyond anything I could have dreamed of to see our work move from a laboratory environment to having it go up on a rocket,” Harkness said. “And best of all, we are on track to meet an early 2015 delivery to NASA, and from there it’s a matter of when we get slotted for launch to the International Space Station.”

The original grant to build the computer system was awarded in 2010. It was a three-year, $750,000 grant from NASA’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, the same agency that awarded LaMeres the opportunity to fly his technology on the International Space Station.

“This project shows that MSU is continuing to do research that is critical to NASA’s mission,” LaMeres said. “And it is giving us the chance to contribute to the development of the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

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