The software plan for NASA's new space telescope

IBM open standards-based software forms basis for NASA's 2013 telescope software

A NASA space telescope scheduled to launch in 2013 will be built using IBM open standards-based software designed to prevent problems caused when software programs developed by various agencies are incompatible with each other, IBM officials announced Friday.

Components and instruments for the Hubble Space Telescope were built by multiple organizations using proprietary software that lacked a unified modelling language, which ensures that software code in one program can be easily related to that in another program.

It is a "nightmare to manage" a telescope in which each instrument is built using tools that are incompatible with each other, says Glenn Cammarata, leader of NASA's integrated science instrument module flight software development team at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Typically, contractors working for NASA "build the instruments how they want ... they'll use software and design tools as they see fit," Cammarata says. "After these things go into flight, somebody has to maintain it, and it's not [the contractors], it's Goddard."

NASA wanted to take a more streamlined approach to software development for the James Webb Space Telescope , a planned infrared telescope that is expected to study every phase of the history of the universe, from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of galaxies, stars and solar systems.

The JWST is an international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, with contractors including Northrop Grumman Space Technologies.

The various software systems needed to operate the telescope will be designed using IBM's Rational Rose Real-Time, open standards-based software. The open standards software is like a blueprint, allowing developers of individual telescope components and instruments to "drag and drop" software code into the blueprint, making it available to everyone else working on the project.

In addition to allowing contractors to work more closely together, this will make it easier for NASA to maintain the telescope once it is launched. IBM's unified modelling language will allow any programmer to examine the software for any component and understand the system architecture, which is embedded in millions of lines of code, says Sky Matthews, senior manager for IBM Rational software.

Fixing Hubble software often required finding the person who wrote code in the original software, according to Matthews.

"Once you get into millions of lines of code, it's really difficult for a new programmer coming onto a project to make a change or understand how different subsystems relate to each other," he says.

The Hubble maintenance team spent 10 years putting all the software tools into the same format, Cammarata says.

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