Houston We Have A Solution

Fri, Oct 2, 2009, 01:00

SPACE EXPLORATION:Irish software designer Mike Hinchey is about to change the face of space exploration

AN IRISH research centre is helping turning ideas straight out of science fiction into commercially viable projects. Imagine a thousand spaceships, each the size of a laptop, being sent out towards the asteroid belt. Lero, the Irish software engineering research centre, is helping Nasa develop projects to make this a reality.

Much of the work in these elaborate projects is being spearheaded by Prof Mike Hinchey. A Limerick native, Hinchey worked in the US for 17 years before returning to his home county to join Lero as co-director.

Hinchey is working on 30 patents with Nasa at the moment to help develop exciting new technologies. The first of these has just been issued while the second is currently going through the patenting process.

Much the work is around the concept of self-managing software, which allows machines to make adjustments and corrections for themselves. For this work, Hinchey will be presented the James Kerley Award later this year. "It's an award for innovation, for bringing new technologies into Nasa," says Hinchey.

"The idea is that eventually it will lead to new types of mission. For example, instead of having single spacecraft where, if you lose that craft, that's it. Instead, you send many, maybe as few as three or as many as a thousand," he says. This new model will make it easier to explore harsh environments. "By having these components self-manage, you end up with something that could survive."

The financial impact of such a policy could be staggering. Failures in multi-billion dollar missions such as the Mars Polar Lander have brought plenty of bad press for Nasa. By developing missions where the failure of one ship does not mean the failure of the project, the agency would dramatically improve the odds of success.

This technology also has applications closer to home. The systems designed by Hinchey and his colleagues can be adapted for the deep-sea exploration sector.

Hinchey's interest in exploring the stars began as a child in Limerick. "When I was a kid, my Dad was an engineer, so I grew up with technology. I got my first computer when I was 11 years old. Back then, that was pretty unusual," he says.

After doing an undergraduate degree in the University of Limerick, Hinchey realised that he wanted to learn more. "I wanted to move into academia, so I realised I would have to do further study early on. I went on to do a masters and a PhD, and while I was doing the PhD, I got an offer for a faculty position in the US and moved," he says.

Hinchey says he ended up in Nasa pretty much by accident. He joined a colleague who was on a road trip to give a talk and met a group that had an interest in Hinchey's field of mathematical certainty of operational systems. "A position became available where an outsider could be brought into a top level position in the civil service," he says.

"After a couple of interviews, I thought I was looking good, but then they announced the first person they were going to hire of the 12 they were appointing," says Hinchey.

"The first guy had a Nobel Prize. At that stage I thought, if that was the calibre of person they wanted, then I wouldn't get the job, but within a week, I had my offer.

"The Nobel Prize winner didn't last, so I was the longest-serving of those appointed and they had no idea how to deal with me after that," he says. Hinchey initially left but then President Bush appointed the Limerick man until the end of his presidency. It was towards the end of Bush's second term that Hinchey accepted the post in Lero. He has also been appointed by President Obama in a part-time consultancy role, helping to keep both Hinchey and Lero close to Nasa. "It means I have access to Nasa data, projects and people if I want them," says Hinchey.

Lero (lero.ie), which is funded by Science Foundation Ireland, is focusing on evolving existing software to meet new requirements. The automotive and medical devices industries have already shown an interest in the work being carried out by Lero.

"We need people to see the long-term contribution research has for this country. It's not just helping universities; we're relevant to companies that are creating employment around the country," says Hinchey.

"We're looking to commercialise some of the projects we're working on," he says.

"I think, in general, people in Ireland are under pressure at the moment because of this need to get ourselves out of the current situation," says Hinchey. "If we keep doing the same sort of stuff we've been doing, we need innovation, new ideas and some risk."