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CASPR Finds its Home Aboard the ISS

Innovative New SHREC Sensors and Space Computers Installed on International Space Station

On Dec. 21, 2021, a system of innovative new computers and sensors developed by the NSF Center for Space, High-performance, and Resilient Computing (SHREC) at the University of Pittsburgh, was packed aboard the SpaceX CRS-24 launch that was precisely and carefully flung toward the stars. 

More specifically, the system, dubbed Configurable and Autonomous Sensor Processing Research (CASPR), is part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Space Test Program (STP), which provides an opportunity to perform cutting-edge technology research aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The successful launch, delivery and docking of CASPR aboard the ISS marks the pinnacle of a three-year process of development and integration. 

On Jan. 11, 2022, the experiment was installed, connected and powered on, marking this novel, reconfigurable space system’s first successful use in space.

“Most university technologies fail when deployed in space,” noted Dr. Alan George, Mickle Chair Professor and Department Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), who leads both SHREC and the CASPR mission. “So far, ours are working exactly as hoped.” 

To prepare for installation, the team had to bolt CASPR on a pallet baseplate (the STP Houston 7 pallet, to be exact), which included six total experiments. When the payload arrived at the ISS, a robotic arm reached into the trunk of the SpaceX Dragon capsule and grabbed the pallet. It then used guides and the Columbus External Payload Adapter (CEPA) to line up and install the pallet on the Columbus module.

As part of their recent delivery to NASA, the SHREC team added two new types of space sensors that will be used to get a better view of Earth and its surroundings.

The sensors include a high-resolution binocular telescopic imager, developed by SHREC collaborator Satlantis, and a neuromorphic event-based camera, developed by Prophesee and created by Dr. Ryad Benosman, professor of ophthalmology and ECE at Pitt.

“This binocular telescope points to Earth, and its ground-resolved distance (GRD) enables us to see things like cars, roads, or trees from the ISS,” said Seth Roffe, a doctoral student in ECE at Pitt who is project manager of STP-H7-CASPR. “There are other telescopes with this level of GRD, but this one is small – roughly the size of a toaster oven.”

Unlike the binocular telescope, the neuromorphic sensor faces the horizon, in the direction that the ISS is moving. The device emulates the human retina and is used to track fast-moving objects in space and improve situational awareness.

Performing research on the ISS requires small yet robust tools that are equipped to handle space’s harsh environment. In addition to new sensors, the CASPR system also includes a pair of new high-performance and reconfigurable computers for space, each known as a SHREC Space Processor (SSP), which is built to withstand these challenging conditions and perform better than its predecessors from SHREC.

SHREC is a national research center sponsored by the National Science Foundation and dedicated to assisting U.S. industrial partners, government agencies, and research organizations in mission-critical computing. The team hopes that the equipment will provide insights into both what these instruments can do and the potential applications of them.

“Sometimes we forget that the three years of preparation and the celebration of a successful launch is just the beginning,” said George. “We are looking forward to doing and learning a lot more in the years to come.”

In addition to Roffe, the project leads for the CASPR system include the following current and former graduate students: 

  • Noah Perryman, electronics lead, who designed and built most of the electronics; 
  • Theodore Schwarz, mechanical lead, who designed and built most of the structure; 
  • Antony Gillette, software lead, who wrote most of the flight software that will control everything in flight; 
  • Evan Gretok, operations lead and expert on commanding the system after launch, as well as applications to run in flight; 
  • Tyler Garrett, GPU lead, who was responsible for software and hardware development related to the GPU; 
  • Sebastian Sabogal, FPGA lead, who designed and wrote all of the firmware that works alongside the software; and 
  • Thomas Cook, power lead, who designed the system that distributes electric power to everything in CASPR.