SGI simulates space

National Aeronautic and Space Administration

Intensive simulation programs performed by high-powered supercomputers will play a key role in meeting space exploration goals, says the top scientist of Silicon Graphics Inc.

In the wake of the President Bush's recently-unveiled space agenda calling for a moon base and ultimately manned missions to Mars, the computing industry must meet the future needs of space exploration designers and engineers, said Eng Lim Goh, senior vice president and chief technology officer at SGI.

"The modeling simulation will be one of the pillars on which the success of [the space agenda] will lie," Goh said. "I think this is an aggressive goal. However, if the appropriate tools are available to the designers, it can be achieved."

Goh believes high-speed computer modeling programs can help engineers not only design and build future spacecraft, but also cut down the time necessary for vehicle development. Computer simulation would reduce the amount of physical testing necessary and let engineers more easily implement improvements. According to Goh, physical testing would still be a necessity, but would involve more of a verification process to assess the findings of simulation programs.

Most current simulation programs are done for full vehicle modeling and simulation at high resolution. However, future improvements must be made to include advanced sensitivity studies, he said.

In such studies, hundreds of simulations could be run, each with slight changes in different input factors related to space travel. For example, researchers could alter the levels of radiation throughout the simulations and assess the impact on the spacecraft.

Last March, SGI officials installed a 1,024-processor Origin 3800 high-performance computer at the Calif.-based Ames Research Center, which can conduct spacecraft simulation and climate modeling.

Currently, the Mars exploration rover program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. uses SGI graphics technology to blend images from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers to create 360-degree views of the Red Planet for JPL engineers on Earth. And NASA scientists work with two SGI Onyx 300 systems with advanced imaging packages to visualize and simulate operations for the two robotic explorers before sending operational instructions up to Mars. These 3-D images allow NASA to navigate the rovers more effectively by having a clearer view of the Martian landscape, Goh said. Engineers also use the imaging as a decision-making tool to determine which areas of Mars to explore.

Because of a time-lapse in communication — up to 20 minutes to transmit signals to Mars — the quality of the high-resolution images helps NASA scientists avoid sending the rovers into problematic situations that cannot quickly be fixed.

Despite earlier communication problems suffered by Spirit, which have been corrected, Goh feels that the combined missions of the two rovers have been a significant success for all involved on the project.

"The history of going to Mars has been a very, very major challenge — it's not uncommon that you get failures," Goh said. "Given that background, this is a major success."

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