Mid-November last year, a consortium of companies, including consulting firm Altran, launched the so-called ‘Lunar CubeSat’ satellite. The tiny satellite, measuring only 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm and weighing 1.1 kg, currently finds itself in an earth orbit, approximately 500 kilometres from the planet. The coming three years, the satellite will gather data and test several systems that will be used for the so-called ‘lunar mission’ in the future.
The CubeSat project is part of NASA's ELaNa IV programme, an initiative started in 2010 with the objective to stimulate the development of Nano-Satellites for educational purpose. Each CubeSat is a miniaturised satellite whose combination of size and standardised components make it a much cheaper method for space research than traditional satellites. Consequently, it has been rapidly adopted by universities and research institutions around the world for diverse research areas, ranging from earthquake detection to wildlife tracking and Arctic sea ice monitoring.
One of the key goals of the programme is to conclude a successful mission to the moon with a CubeSat satellite, known as the ‘lunar mission’, before 2020. The ‘Lunar CubeSat’ represents one of the key steps towards this ambition, and the focus lies on the testing the newly-developed engineering (navigation & control) and communication systems, known as SPARK.
The initiators of the CubeSat program, including the Vermont Technical College and NASA, have decided to adopt SPARK as the main programming language for the missions. The language, developed by software company AdaCore and consulting firm Altran, is regarded to be ground-breaking due to the benefits that the ‘high-safety’ applications provide to the current systems, including reliability, efficiency and flexibility. As a result, this programming language is increasingly used as the language for space-based, commercial aircraft avionics, military and railroad systems. “We specifically chose to write the control program for our CubeSat in SPARK because it is more reliable that the C language software used in almost all CubeSats to date”, says Carl Brandon, the project leader from Vermont Technical College.
With the launch of the 'Lunar CubeSat', the initiators can thoroughly test the SPARK system in the CubeSat environment and where needed optimize its working in the coming three years.
Stuart Matthews, SPARK Product Manager at Altran, is proud of Altran's involvement in this high profile project: “We are very excited that the SPARK technology is being used to support the CubeSat project. Applications such as these, where it is essential to do it right the first time, reflect the core of the SPARK philosophy of healthy software engineering.”