NASA Turning to UML Modeling Tools from IBM for New Space Telescope

Software developers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are now using UML modeling tools from IBM to develop the systems that will operate the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, IBM disclosed on Friday. The agency is using Rational Rose Real-Time, IBM's visual modeling environment, to provide a blueprint for the multi-decade project, the company said. Developers of the various telescope systems will be able to drag and drop software code directly into this blueprint, where it is then automatically available across the entire project.

The new James Webb Space Telescope, which NASA expects to launch by 2013, is being designed to study galaxy, star, and planet formation. NASA will use the telescope to "look back in time" and deep into space via special instruments optimized to capture infrared light, the agency says.

Because separate space agencies from several different countries around the world are developing the software that will operate the telescope’s guidance, navigation-and-control, command, and data-handling systems—as well as the Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM) that houses the four primary instruments on the telescope—NASA considered it critical to "weave a common thread throughout the project," explains Sky Matthews, senior manager for IBM's Rational industrial systems solutions.

The acceptance of modeling tools represents a major cultural change among NASA software developers, Matthews says. "I've seen a significant change over the last three or four years," he says. "And not just at NASA, but also at the Department of Defense, the Navy… They seem to be very serious about improving their software development methods and adapting to newer technologies more quickly."

NASA has mandated that each agency develop their systems using open standards-based software, a trend that is spreading among government agencies, says Jerry Krasner, chief analyst and VP at Embedded Market Forecasters. "What NASA did is what people should be doing," he says. "Our data shows that people who use simulation modeling, auto code generation, and UML-based tools get better design outcomes... Designs are becoming incredibly complex today, and the nice thing about UML is that it allows you to handle systems within systems.

The UML-based approach allows NASA to create a standard, reusable architecture for this mission, says Glenn Cammarata, ISIM flight software development lead for Satellite Software Corporation, a Raleigh, NC-based contractor with NASA, which will allow it to be deployed on additional missions moving forward. NASA says it plans to continue to use IBM Rational software to maintain the telescope after the launch and throughout the life of the mission.

Cammarata agrees that the adoption of UML tools is a big cultural change at NASA. "This is a conservative group because it's a more demanding environment," he says. "But what happens here is the same thing that happens in private industry. It just takes longer. Believe it or not, the move from C to C++ was a big step around here."

Some of the agencies working on the telescope are also using IBM's Requisite Pro, Rational ClearCase, and Rational ClearQuest, says Matthews. These tools allow the agency to synchronize changes within NASA's globally dispersed project teams.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].