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Texas A&M engineering students to collaborate with NASA

Fri, 08/23/2013 - 6:47am
Texas A&M UniversityTexas A&M University

Engineers from NASA’s Johnson Space Center will be collaborating with students in the Electronic Systems Engineering Technology (ESET) Program at Texas A&M University to develop space-qualified hardware systems. NASA is looking to expand the capabilities of its Modular Integrated Stackable Layer (MISL) platform while Texas A&M students and faculty will gain valuable experience working with state-of-the-art technologies.

The Command and Data Handling (C&DH) Branch of NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) Engineering Directorate will collaborate with the ESET Program at Texas A&M to expand NASA’s space-qualified, embedded intelligence-based development system. A major goal of the partnership is to make the rack-and-stack Arduino-like modular layers available to designers and developers of systems intended for space applications.

“This partnership is the most recent in a series of design and development projects that have been accomplished by ESET undergraduate students during the past two years for our group and others at JSC,” said Chris Culbert, chief of the Avionic Systems Division at NASA JSC.

The MISL system is a small, reconfigurable computer system that can be easily adapted to many different applications, including spacecraft instrumentation and control systems. The layers are currently defined as power, microcontroller, communication and interface. NASA has designed several modules in each layer type. Systems can be easily and quickly assembled using the MISL modules to meet specific prototype and product requirements, thus reducing cost and time to develop space-qualified hardware.

The C&DH Branch will maintain oversight and development of the MISL architecture and technical specification in addition to providing space qualification testing of some new layers developed by the open community that are chosen to be used by NASA on flight missions.  C&DH is providing a number of basic layers to the partnership to support startup phase activities. 

Paul Delaune, MISL project manager at NASA, said, “Due to our ambitious short-term goal of using this system in ESET classes this fall, C&DH is providing hardware for the Fall 2013 embedded software class. By the spring semester, several of the basic module designs will be transferred to ESET and they can start producing their own systems. ESET is also incorporating the MISL in one of their capstone projects in which they will be developing a new interface module. This will augment the library of modules available for the MISL. We believe this collaboration will allow NASA to share the design and components of the MISL with the public, and in return, be able to utilize public contributions to the designs in our missions. This will save us schedule and design costs which in the current budget environment is crucial.” 

The ESET Program has accepted three primary tasks under the new partnership: continuing development of the layers available; integrating MISL technology into the ESET undergraduate curriculum; and developing and maintaining an online open community to support the dissemination of MISL technology and solutions. All three task areas will begin this fall semester. 

Final New MISL LogoIn response to the first task, an ESET capstone designteam will design and develop a new layer that conforms to the MISL specifications and standards. This new layer will be part of an integrated MISL-based embedded subsystem that will be used in the development of a new system. The target system being considered at this time is a highly maneuverable four-wheeled robot that will be configured to meet a NASA mission objective.

The educational task will begin with the integration of the currently available MISL modules into the ESET Embedded C course and laboratory. The sophomore-level course will allow students to configure and program these small form factor modular systems to perform specific tasks. In so doing, the students will learn to use low-level driver software developed by the NASA team. Course materials and lab exercises developed specifically for MISL will be shared with other academic programs through the on-line open community. In addition, NASA engineers will visit and interact with the sophomore students as they work with the MISL modules.

The third major task that the ESET Program will initiate during the fall semester is the design and implementation of a new web-based wiki environment to host the open community for MISL users. Technical data, example software, low-level drivers and system configuration information will be hosted on the wiki site. The goal of the open community is to encourage continued development and integration of the MISL architecture and standards into both educational and research efforts.


The partnership will take the strengths of NASA JSC’s C&DH branch and complement them with the ESET Program’s educational and collaboration skills to create a unique partnership that will give the electronics community and especially the space electronics community an exciting new platform and collaboration opportunity.

The ESET Program has been pleased with the new levels of interaction that have been achieved with NASA-JSC over the past two years. Matthew Leonard, Class of 1986 and a senior project manager from NASA JSC on sabbatical toTexas A&M, has played an important role in introducing the ESET Program to the NASA JSC Engineering Division, which has resulted in a number of successful research and capstone projects. These projects include the NASA wireless smart plug, which has just completed final acceptance testing within the Deep Space Habitat, and the NESI board development, an embedded intelligence, instrumentation and communications device that will be used by high school students flying their eXtreme Science Experiments on the NanoRack platform onboard the International Space Station. 

Dr. Jay Porter, ESET program director, said, “We are pleased that NASA has selected the ESET Program and our new Product Innovation Cellar to expand the development, commercialization and support of their MISL architecture. This new partnership will have direct impact on all aspects of our undergraduate educational program and will allow our students to work with state-of-the-art technologies as they pursue their degrees at Texas A&M. Being fully engaged in the development and support of the MISL modules will also allow our faculty to be more competitive in responding to solicitations dealing with space-related systems and products development.”  

The ESET Program is actively pursuing interested private and public sector organizations to work with them on this exciting experiential educational opportunity. Interested companies, organizations or individuals should contact Porter (porter@entc.tamu.edu) or Dr. Joseph Morgan (morganj@entc.tamu.edu) for more information.

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