Computers in Space Science Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

computers in space science. Specifically, it will look at the roles computers have in current space technology and how they have effected the lives of everyone in the world. Without computer technology, space science would be confined to the ground, and man's imagination. Before large-scale computing was developed, the technologies necessary to design, build, and maintain a space program simply did not exist. Computers have made it possible to explore the moon, stars, and beyond.

Computers in Space Science

Computers play an integral role in the science of space, and without them most of modern space exploration would not be possible. As the NASA report, "Computers at NASA" states, "Since the 1950's, the computer has been the main tool that has enabled scientists and engineers to visualize the next frontier and then make it a reality" (NASA). NASA employs literally thousands of computers throughout the world to monitor, design, and assimilate space technologies, from the space shuttle, to numerous satellites in orbit around Earth and the various deep space exploration missions. NASA owns the fastest supercomputer in the world -- the Cray Y-MP C90, located at NASA's Ames Research Center, Mountain View, Calif., and the Cray is just one of many supercomputers online at NASA. These computers are all used for a wide variety of tasks, from word processing and database functions, to computer-aided design (CAD), Photographic Process (Configuration Monitoring Management), Launch Control, Simulation, Software Development, Instrumentation/Data Logging, Telemetry, Virtual Reality, and much more (NASA). For example, NASA relies heavily on computerized information in just about every facet of the Space Shuttle operations. Computers control the Space Shuttle launch, monitor systems on the Shuttle during its deployment, and for landing the Shuttle. The central data subsystem of the Shuttle is one of the most important computer technologies used during Shuttle operations. "The central data subsystem consists of two large-scale computers that store test procedures, vehicle processing data, a master program library, historical data, pre-test and post-test data analysis, and other data" (NASA). Thus, computers are vital to the Space Shuttle mission, and without them, the Shuttle literally would not get off the ground.

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is another example of space technology dependent on computer technology. The initial design of the telescope was largely dependent on computer design and modeling, and the telescope uses several onboard computers to keep things running smoothly in space.

Several computers and microprocessors reside in the Hubble body and in each science instrument. Two main computers, which girdle Hubble's "waist," direct the show. One talks to the instruments, receives their data and telemetry, sends the data off to interface units for transmission to the ground, and sends commands and timing information to the instruments. The other main computer handles the gyroscopes, the pointing control subsystem, and other system-wide functions. Special backup computers keep Hubble safe in the event of a problem (Editors).

Each of the instruments on board the Hubble all house their own computers, too, and the telescope communicates with Earth through a system of data recording units and satellites. The data recording system records and stores information when satellites are not within sight of the telescope, and then transfers the data when a satellite is available. These systems all rely on computers and microchips to store and transmit data to the ground. Once the data reaches the ground, it is also stored via computer technology. "Each day, Hubble transmits enough data to fill 10,000 standard computer diskettes -- the equivalent of 5 encyclopedias. This rapidly growing collection of pictures and data is stored on optical disks" (Editors). The Hubble technology relies on computers in a wide variety of ways, and without computers, the Hubble would still be a ground-based telescope.

Computer technology abounds in the unmanned exploratory missions to Mars (and beyond). Computer technology exists in just about every facet of the Mars program, from the complex design of the Mars landers, to the robotics necessary to explore the Mars surface, and the satellite technology so we can view what is happening on Mars as it happens. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Web Site explains,

Great spacecraft and innovative technologies are not born they are designed. The instruments that make up a spacecraft require intricate designs and thorough testing to live up to their promise. To accomplish this, superior design facilities and highly trained engineers strive to turn a great idea into a workable device. Before anything flies, spacecraft go through rigorous testing. Engineers on the ground must anticipate every possible scenario, similar to those the spacecraft will encounter during its mission - from the harsh vibrations of launch to the icy cold nights and fiery rays from our Sun during the day ("Testbed").

Nearly all of this design and testing is accomplished using computers. The Mars missions are monitored with computers, the Mars lander was designed with CAD systems, and computers even simulate everything from the mission launch to touchdown and lander deployment. Computers a so integral to the Mars mission that the Mars program could not exist without computer monitoring and design functions. In the future, landers will be able to return to Earth with rock and soil samples from Mars, and the technology to allow this is being developed now, with the help of computers.

It is not just the Hubble telescope that relies on computer technology. Ground-based telescopes also use a variety of computerized technologies to find stars, planets, and galaxies, photograph them, and allow astronomers to make decisions based on the photos. Computers are utilized in just about every aspect of ground-based astronomy, from computerized tracking on large telescopes, to complicated data analysis that allows astronomers to more quickly assimilate and analyze astronomical data. In addition, computers have been used in the complex design and development of newer, more powerful telescopes, and in digital imagery.

Advances in computer technology have also allowed cosmologists to test theories experimentally using large computer simulations of hierarchical structure formation. In the coming decade, there will be many more 8-m class optical telescopes, extensive surveys of the galaxy distribution such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and new microwave background satellites (Planck and MAP) will measure the fluctuations of the microwave background radiation very precisely. The new data from these telescopes will challenge cosmological theory (Dubinski).

Already, advanced computing though ground-based telescopes has discovered a vast wealth of new galaxies, planets, and solar systems in our universe, and as telescopes become even more powerful, scientists will have more and more information at their disposal. Ground-based telescopes suffer from light pollution, haze, cloud cover, and many other problems, but computer programs are being developed that will overcome many of these problems, so that ground-based telescopes may someday be nearly as powerful as the HST, and the data they provide can be studied and analyzed with high-powered computer databases, creating new astronomical theories and intelligence.

Computer technology has helped humanity enter space exploration and travel, and computer technology is at the forefront of looking for other life in our universe. The search for extraterrestrial life is not new, but computer technologies have enhanced our abilities to reach out into space, and perhaps find someone listening to our messages. Satellites hooked up to computers constantly monitor outer space for any type of signal. However, computer technology now allows even home computer users to help the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI Institute) in its quest to find extraterrestrial life. The program, called, allows computer users all over the globe to use their own computers to help SETI monitor the skies for communication. "The project, which is an independent arm of the SETI Institute, relies on both computer technology that allows independent communication between Internet users and on individuals all over the world, who use their computers to interpret radio signals from space" (Barber). Users download the program, which is in the form of a screensaver. The program picks up data from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico, and then performs calculations on the data and then sends the data directly to SETI. Users are automatically assigned a specific portion of sky to monitor, and "Each volunteer's name is attached to each piece of data that is sent back to SETI. If your information leads to the discovery of extraterrestrial life, you win a Nobel Prize, which you share with 2 million other people" (Barber). SETI uses many different computer technologies to help search the universe for life, but the project may be one of the most unique and personally gratifying programs for both SETI and its volunteers. There are at least 2.5 million volunteers in 266 countries around the world who are contributing to, and who knows what their computers may find in the future?

In addition to all these computer technologies used in space, the use of computers in space has also created a vast wealth of technologies that have trickled down into everyday living. One researcher calls these items "NASA spin-offs," and they include virtual reality technology, advanced computer…

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