June 18, 2012

Space exploration, higher education will both benefit from new partnership

While many college students have started applying what they are learning at school in summer internships, 10 students and three professors from two Historically Black College and University institutions are now at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The final results of their efforts may one day be orbiting above the Earth or flying off into deep space.

An agency-wide effort, the NASA Science and Technology Institute for Minority Institutions, or NSTI-MI, is a three-year competitive program designed to enhance the science, technology, engineering and math capabilities of HBCU students. The unique nature of Goddard’s arrangement is that it also involves a partnership with two private commercial companies.

NASA Goddard, Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, Tuskegee University, Ala., along with Mentor Graphics in Wilsonville, Ore. and Triad Semiconductor of Winston-Salem, N.C., have entered into this innovative collaboration. The goal is to have these university professors knowledgeable in microelectronics and computer science work with their students to build a library of electronic designs that can be rapidly and affordably built and used to design electronics for future spacecraft and instrument control.

“One of the challenges in undergraduate education is to have relevant and real design-and-build projects for students,” said Lucy McFadden, chief for higher education at Goddard. “With efforts such as this, we have a ready structure to motivate students and give them a real learning environment with an exciting outcome.”

Microelectronics design for space missions is demanding. Being able to optimize the size, weight and power of electronics is a mission-critical activity for all projects. At the same time, outer space presents a harsh radiation environment requiring electronics to operate under extreme conditions.

The researchers will utilize a design environment provided by Triad known as ViaDesignerâ„¢. ViaDesigner is a new electronic design automation tool that enables system-level engineers, who have no previous integrated circuit design experience, to create their own application-specific integrated circuits. ViaDesigner is based on the Mentor Graphics SystemVision® design environment. Prior to the students’ arrival at Goddard, Mentor Graphics provided training with their SystemVision tool.

“Using a virtual prototype to try out a design instead of waiting for physical hardware to be built is so natural for the upcoming generation of engineers,” said Darrell Teegarden, Director of System Modeling & Analysis Business Unit, Mentor Graphics. “Our SystemVision environment is perfect for NASA engineers to design and integrate Triad Semiconductor devices into a larger system — including off-the-shelf components, sensors and actuators, and other real-world effects.”

“Triad is excited about NASA’s evaluating VCA technology and ViaDesigner as a potential way to develop mixed-signal integrated circuits,” said Reid Wender, vice-president, marketing and technical sales at Triad Semiconductor. “As evaluation and development proceed, the goal will be to create a design flow that supports mission requirements across a number of NASA flight programs while reducing development time, cost and improving reliability.”

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