Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
June 21, 2005
Grad Student Heading to NASA
A University of Guelph graduate student will be spending his “summer vacation” at a place many others only dream about: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
John Carter, a master’s student in the Department of Computing and Information Science (CIS), will head to Maryland in July to work with officials from NASA’s Software Engineering Laboratory. “I’m definitely excited to be going,” said Carter, who is part of the CIS Modeling and Design Automation research group with his supervisor, professor William Gardner.
“It’s an amazing opportunity not only for me, but also our group. And it’s important for people to see that there’s a lot more to computer science than just computer programming,” Carter said.
Gardner added that the focus of the U of G group’s research — a particular approach to developing computer software — strongly resonates with work under way at the space agency. He said that typically, the process of constructing software follows a well-worn path: specifying what it’s supposed to do, designing its structure to make it fulfill the requirements, writing the software using some programming language (such as C++), then testing it.
But when high stakes are involved — such as in space missions — special techniques known as “formal methods” may be used to ensure that the software can be proven to meet the requirements. “The objective is to reduce the likelihood of bugs, which can be catastrophic in systems that cannot afford to be rebooted like your home computer when it crashes,” he said.
Gardner and his students are trying to make it easier to use a particular formal method called Communicating Sequential Processes (CSP). For example, their tools allow specifications written in CSP’s algebraic notation to be automatically translated to C++, saving a time-consuming and error-prone step of hand translation.
NASA scientists have been trying to use CSP at an even earlier stage of the development process, and their experimental tools involve the use of artificial intelligence techniques, Gardner said. Applications where NASA wants to use formal methods include the ANTS mission, which involves sending out small sensor spacecrafts to analyze asteroid composition, and robotic instructions for servicing the Hubble Space Telescope in space.
The invitation to collaborate with the space agency came after another student member of the CIS research team, Stephen Doxsee, presented a paper on the group’s formal methods research at a conference. A NASA official in attendance was so impressed that he asked Gardner to send a graduate student for the summer.
Carter was selected because he had recently finished his course work and was preparing to start his thesis research. He will spend eight weeks working on integrating the group’s tools into NASA’s formal methods approach or helping to develop other design automation tools. “I’m hoping to get exposed to a wide range of projects and gain insight into new applications of our research,” he said.
Gardner added that Carter’s work over the summer may lead to further collaborations. “He hopes to come back with his thesis research nailed down and carrying, if not some space souvenirs or a ticket for a shuttle flight, at least some choice photos of ‘my NASA cubicle’ to flaunt to envious friends.”
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