Lero signs €300k contract with European Space Agency

18 Aug 2011

The Irish Software Engineering Research Centre (Lero) has signed a research contract worth €300,000 with the European Space Agency to create a potential software framework for future space missions.

The 18-month programme will begin in September and will comprise researchers at the University of Limerick and Trinity College Dublin.

“The awarding of the contract is a further sign of the impact that Lero has made in software engineering research on a global scale,” said Prof Mike Hinchey, director of Lero, who prior to returning to Ireland to head up the Lero research centre was director of the software engineering lab at NASA.

“Modern space research missions are critically dependent on complex software for their success: flight control software, software tailored for each specific scientific experiment carried aboard a spacecraft, and the operating system software that manages everything.

“The correctness of all of this software is of crucial importance as a failure in one component could jeopardise the correct behaviour of the rest, and vast amounts of time and money are spent on the verification of their functioning,” said Hinchey.

Space flight control software

The group at Trinity College Dublin, led by Dr Andrew Butterfield, in collaboration with their Lero partners at the University of Limerick, are leading an effort to explore the feasibility of developing a software framework that would allow all the scientific experiment and flight control software to be safely isolated from one another, so that failure of one component cannot lead to the failure of others.

This software framework, the “Secure Separation Kernel” is itself 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. The aim is 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.

The trade off between costs and quality is a key challenge in in-flight software for space missions. One option to tackle this problem and improve cost efficiency, while maintaining expected quality levels, is to exploit similarities between space missions and aim for the strategic reuse of software components.

The group led by Dr Goetz Botterweck at the University of Limerick will provide modelling languages and tools, which will allow ESA engineers to describe the software of multiple space missions as customised products derived from one shared platform. These “product line engineering” techniques will increase efficiency and quality, and improve the handling of complex applications, reduce time-to-completion, increase agility to react to changing requirements and reduce project risks due to usage of well-known components.

Autonomous computing in space

ESA is employing the autonomic computing (AC) paradigm to the development of special autonomous components for their spacecraft systems, such as ExoMars.

To tackle AC issues in their projects, ESA applies traditional development approaches, but experience has shown those are inappropriate for future missions requiring more complex autonomic features.

To improve the development process and the quality of the ESA-developed autonomous components, Dr Emil Vassev, based in the University of Limerick, will lead a team that will target a new, AC-dedicated development approach that will help ESA developers properly express AC requirements, model components or entire systems implementing such requirements, and implement and test autonomous components.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years