Trinity Researchers Lead Effort to Develop Software Framework for Space Missions

Posted on: 18 August 2011

Researchers at the School of Computer Science and Statistics at TCD, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Limerick, will lead a project to explore the feasibility of developing a software framework for modern space research missions.  The research group will be working for the Irish Software Engineering Research Centre (Lero) who recently signed a contract worth €300,000 with the European Space Agency (ESA) for the development of the software framework.

The success of any space mission is critically dependent on the successful functioning of complex software such as flight control software, software for specific scientific experiments on board and operating system software.  A failure in any one component could jeopardise the correct behavior of the others and therefore jeopardise the mission’s findings.  By developing a software framework all the scientific experiment and flight control software could be safely isolated from each other, so that failure of one component cannot lead to the failure of others.

Speaking about the research project, lead researcher of the TCD team, Dr Andrew Butterfield said: “We are seeking to develop a framework that will allow the European Space Agency to develop secure software platforms for spacecraft in a manner that is correct and can be easily verified, thereby reducing the effort and spend that is usually necessary when testing software functioning.  This approach is as an alternative to being totally dependent on testing, which can never be fully exhaustive, given the complexity of modern space missions.”

The software framework, the ‘Secure Separation Kernel’ is an extremely critical component, and the research challenge is to explore the use of verification techniques based on formal logic to ensure its correctness, rather than relying solely on extensive testing techniques.  As the trade-off between costs and quality is a key challenge in in-flight software for space missions the aim is to develop a software development process that allows such kernel software to be certified to very high state-of-the art certification standards, appropriate for space flight.  Work on the project is due to commence in September 2011.