Brock LaMeres’ Students Prepare a RadPC Lunar Payload

Montana State University students Jake Davis, a senior in mechanical engineering, left, and Chris Major, a doctorate student in electrical engineering, work on a radiation tolerant computer system on March 2.

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A computer system developed by Montana State University researchers that has been in the works for more than a decade has taken its next step toward a NASA moon launch.

Known as the RadPC, the technology is designed to withstand increased radiation in outer space and may replace more expensive and cumbersome computers used now by NASA scientists. MSU researchers recently learned the technology is scheduled for launch on a lunar rover, most likely aboard a SpaceX rocket, in summer 2023.

The mission may be an intensive test of the technology to see if it can survive a trip to the moon and the conditions once it arrives, according to Brock LaMeres, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. LaMeres has led the research into a radiation-tolerant computer for the past 10 years.

“The mission is a test of the RadPC computer in what we say is the harshest environment yet,” he said. “…We’ll leave earth’s orbit and leave its magnetic field and we’ll be hit with the harshest radiation.”

The work to develop this version of the computer first began with a $1.6 million grant from NASA in 2019 and a selection as one of 12 science and technology projects to be part of its Artemis program. Previously, the university received $3.5 million in funding to test the concept.

The Artemis program began in 2017 with a goal of establishing human presence on the moon in 2024 as a step toward an eventual crewed mission to Mars.

“Everything kind of accelerated,” LaMeres said of learning the launch date. “… We have to finalize all of our documentation and protocols and review with NASA to make sure we can meet the demands of the mission. It all of a sudden became real.”

The research team also learned it will take about 45 days to travel to the moon and will then spend at least two weeks on the lunar surface.

The project will collect information about how well the computer operates on the lunar surface and could set the stage for work on future moon rovers or a potential lunar habitat, LaMeres said.

LaMeres estimates he’s had about 50 students in the past decade work on the RadPC project. The majority of those students have gone on to work in the aerospace industry, including Boeing and SpaceX, he said.

“The students, they love getting to work on something real for NASA and it’s a very unique experience,” LaMeres said. “It’s a real mission.”

The computer, about the size of half a loaf of bread, is a student-driven research project, he said.

“The students do everything,” he said. “As the principal investigator, I’ve never written a line of code or turned a screwdriver… It’s a great opportunity for students at all levels, freshman, seniors and PhD students.”

Although the computer won’t launch on the side of lunar rover until the summer of 2023, the research team will need to deliver the device to NASA by next summer. In the meantime, the project has a couple more big tests, including a launch on a high-altitude balloon in six months and a trip to a space station six months after that.

Since work first began on what is now known as the RadPC, LaMeres said the technology has been tested on high-altitude balloons, aboard the International Space Station and two small satellites launched in 2018 and 2019.

“Sometimes you don’t look back and realize how far it’s come,” he said. “Ten years ago, we were just doing demonstrations on a local ballooning platform out in Big Timber.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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