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What can manufacturers learn from software testing in outer space?

May 10, 2023
There's a gold rush in space.

By Gareth Smith, general manager, software test automation at Keysight Technologies

The space industry has undergone a transformation over the past ten years. Governments no longer drive space exploration; instead, private businesses and billionaire entrepreneurs are pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible a decade ago. This is fueling explosive growth, creating a gold rush in space.

Space missions are now commonplace, with SpaceX alone carrying out more than one voyage per week in 2022. From building the next generation of reusable rockets to scaling low earth-orbit communication satellites and reaching planets deeper in the solar system with the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars, there is no limit to the innovation. However, to realize these goals, the ability to confirm that technology will perform as expected is mission-critical.

When it comes to the harsh environment of space, it's the ultimate challenge for technology. From surviving the force of the launch, the vast temperature fluctuations, the impact of radiation while orbiting, communication challenges through to the volume of debris in space...these hurdles can’t be underestimated. Therefore, hardware and software must be durable enough to withstand these pressures and continue working as expected.

Space & software

Space equipment and technology are extremely complex and are increasingly dependent on software. For example, in the 1970s, satellites had little to no software compared to the satellite mega-constellations that are currently deployed, which rely on software-driven services to communicate. It is mission critical to ensure these technologies are tested rigorously in every possible scenario so they will perform reliably. Given the sheer volume of code, manual testing is not viable for various reasons, including complexity, cost and time.

Deploying AI-driven software automation is the only pathway to ensuring technology is space-ready. Intelligent automated testing can provide insights into readiness for launch and orbit. The ability to quickly and thoroughly test every potential scenario is critical and the intelligence helps teams identify where potential issues are most likely to occur and remediate these before the physical launch happens. This approach ensures that the software and technology deliver the required outcomes.

Testing the user experience

Testing code-compliance is not enough in any setting and especially not in the harsh environment of space. Using automated testing to test through the eyes of the user—alongside the entire user experience, functionality, performance and usability—means that tests reflect exactly what the user does. For example, it's mission-critical to evaluate how the systems work together and understand the human spaceflight. This requires understanding the human operator console for these systems to ensure that what's being shown to the operators at mission control is what is being sent and what is being received. When humans are on board, the interactive systems must provide robust and accurate information that is easy to interpret visually. For example, the data might be correct, but if a UI panel obscures the information or values are cropped, that needs to be found and fixed before the spacecraft is in orbit.

Another benefit of AI-driven testing is that it rapidly accelerates the development of technology advancements that are crucial in the space gold rush, where being first to market has significant financial benefits. (Sounds similar to manufacturing, huh?) In addition, the testing can easily scale as the technology matures and more complexity is embedded. This is vital with the rapid growth and innovation underway within the space industry. As a result, businesses and government agencies are increasingly adopting automated testing to ensure the software delivers.

One example of this is NASA, which has integrated an intelligent automation platform to test that the software in the Orion spacecraft performs as expected. To monitor the status of the spaceflight and provide instructions to the crew, the cockpit has software-based digital displays replacing the legacy approach of vast mounds of paper documentation.

Orion’s testers are deploying the automation to dynamically evaluate the software's user experience to ensure it is reliable and performs as expected—for example, testing that the digital cockpit provides accurate information to the astronauts operating Orion. The end result is a significantly more efficient and thorough way to test the entire lifecycle. With Orion’s ultimate mission to take humans deeper into space than ever before, this is software's ultimate challenge. Testing will continue while the Orion is in orbit to monitor the status and the ability to control the spaceship if an emergency situation occurs, resulting in a loss of communications with mission control back on Earth.

The space gold rush and industry innovations show no sign of slowing. The demand and need to rigorously test mission-critical systems to ensure they perform and are safe will continue to soar, and those in the manufacturing space can learn valuable lessons from the heavens.

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