UND Computer Science researchers win NSF grant to teach mission critical skills

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John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences


A team of University of North Dakota scientists recently received a National Science Foundationgrant that will facilitate the formation of undergraduate learning groups.

The three year $380,000 NSF grant is titled Research Experience in Developing Software for Mission Critical Space Systems. According to the grant proposal, this Research Experiences for Undergraduates program introduces students to the design criteria of mission critical systems. Students will get hands-on experience working on a real mission-critical cyber-physical system and gain an appreciation of the importance of design processes.

The principal investigators on the grant are Ron Marsh, chair of the Department of Computer Science, and David Whalen, faculty in the Department of Space Studies; both departments are part of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. In addition, several other UND computer scientists will mentor participants on the design of an Open-Source/Open-Hardware CubeSat class satellite that has been under development at UND.

"Open Orbiter is a student led effort that is developing the full spectrum of systems required to develop, launch, and manage a CubeSat space mission; however, our goal is to create a system that is very affordable ($5000)," said Jeremy Straub, a PhD candidate in Computer Science and one of the instructors in the grant.

The UND small spacecraft research experience for undergraduates program fills a nationwide need for more qualified individuals with aerospace software development experience. "Even among the top small spacecraft programs, a common complaint is that they cannot find suitably qualified software developers," said Straub, who is also a founding member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Small Satellite Technical Committee.

The program will run for three summers at UND. In each of those three summer sessions, 10 undergraduate students (incoming freshman through super seniors) will be recruited nationwide to work on spacecraft software-related research under the supervision of one or more mentors.

"We anticipate a few students from UND will be selected to participate, but selection overall will be based on the merit of applying students," said Marsh.

Most of the activities associated with this grant will be conducted at UND. The following are the key activities associated with this grant:

  1. A visit to the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard complex in Nekoma, North Dakota, which was the United States' only operational anti-ballistic missile system. This visit will be to stress the importance of software testing - for example, a discussion of how a Russian system/software failure almost started a nuclear war in 1983.
  2. At least one solar balloon launch to test the systems developed by the students.
  3. At the end of their UND course, participants will visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., where they will be mentored by scientists in JPL's mission and software design groups; they also will review of their work at UND and perform a mock mission. Students will tour JPL and learn about the importance of software design systems and processes for past JPL missions.

The broader significance and importance of this grant is that software development for mission and safety critical systems is critical to the United States economy, national security, and growth.

"There is a critical need for computer scientists who appreciate the importance of appropriate design and development and testing techniques in safety-critical systems," said Marsh. "There is also a critical lack of system engineers who understand the interplay between hardware and software."