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The Next Frontier: The Role of Testing in Mission Critical Software Systems

by Allison Freedman, on 3/13/23

A recent BlooLoop article proclaimed, “Commercial spaceflight, or space tourism, is currently valued at more than $450 billion. Furthermore, it is expected to grow to more than $1 trillion by 2040." If recent test flights by Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, and NASA are any indicator, passengers will be able to circle Earth — or for a mere $50 million, journey into space.

It is a fascinating prospect that underscores how critical it is for software to perform optimally in mission-critical environments. Eggplant explored this theme in detail in a DigitalisationWorld article, highlighting key technology challenges facing space exploration.

Mission Critical: Automated Testing

Chief among the challenges are the conditions in which computers and software systems must perform — it is difficult to envision a harsher or more extreme environment than outer space. It is also essential that mission-critical technology be able to function in high-stakes, tense situations.

For example, if something goes wrong while in space, the astronauts onboard will enter a stressful state and might start using software more vigorously. Users might begin switching between screens rapidly or rebooting programs or software quickly. Depending on the nature of the issue, human lives could be at stake if the technology cannot absorb these pressures without impacting performance. This is why intelligent automated testing is so essential to mission-critical software.

Rather than focusing simply on code, AI-driven automation tests the entire user experience. As a result, NASA and the other organizations involved in space exploration can implement real-life scenarios that mimic some of the stressful situations astronauts might encounter on board. In addition, automated testing can test hundreds of scenarios quickly and scale as the technology matures, a particularly crucial element given the current advancements in space exploration.

NASA's Orion spacecraft seen by Earth
Eggplant Test ensures the Orion's spacecraft mission control panels operate at 100% when 280,000 miles from Earth. 
Orion's three control panels
The Orion spacecraft's three glass control panels are a vast improvement over the 2,000 switches and controls of the Space Shuttle.
Inside the Orion spacecraft mock cockpit
The computer in Orion’s service module controls 33 engines and reads over 100 pressure and temperature sensors.


Testing the Orion Spacecraft

Eggplant works with Orion, NASA’s latest spacecraft, to deliver speed and scale and ensure that all onboard software and equipment perform as they should. The Orion will take four humans deeper into space than they ever gone before via the Artemis series of missions, and the glass cockpit allows the astronauts to monitor and control the ship. The Orion is equipped with a glass cockpit with three display units, seven switch interface panels, two rotational hand controllers, two translational hand controllers, and two cursor control devices. The display units utilize a variety of display formats to provide data to the crew for awareness and action when necessary. According to NASA, "The Orion displays and controls are designed for an intensive amount of crew interaction both in nominal and off-nominal scenarios. Electronic procedures have been developed for Orion that allow direct interaction with the display formats enabling reduced workload on the crew." These procedures efficiently walk the crew through planned tasks, reduce workload, and alert the crew when onboard faults and anomalies occur. In the event of a caution or warning, the displays communicate urgent actions the crew needs to take, ensuring safety for all onboard. 

NASA has created exact replicas of these interfaces in a cockpit mock-up at NASA’s Rapid Prototyping Lab to test their software. They use Eggplant to dynamically test the software’s user experience even under simulated highly stressful conditions. Given the sheer amount of code involved in the software, manually testing of the programs would cause an undue time and resource burden. Eggplant enables Orion’s testers to address this issue, reducing testing time and increasing efficiency while easily accounting for the entire testing lifecycle.

Former NASA Chief Astronaut Chris Cassidy


Hear Directly from the Astronaut Who Tested the Orion

Hear first-hand from Chris Cassidy, a former chief NASA Astronaut, on his experience testing the Orion spacecraft and his time on the ISS at our webinar: Mach Speed Software Testing for Safe Space Travel. He joins aerospace and defense experts at Keysight to discuss future trends in testing for missions at the edge, best practices, digital twins and more.

Time will tell if we all will vacation in space within the next few decades. But one thing is clear: the need for rigorous technology testing will only grow with an increase in critical missions and emerging technologies.

Of course, space is far from the only example of edge computing. Defense, utilities and power systems, healthcare, and transportation are just a few other industries in which software performance can be a life-or-death imperative. Check out our aero defense case studies to learn how Eggplant works with companies in these and other critical mission industries. Take Eggplant for a free test flight today, and see how automating your software testing process will save you serious time and money while dramatically reducing errors. 

Topics:Test automationsoftware testingdigital automation intelligenceintelligent automationdigital transformationdigital twinAerospace & Defenseblackbox testingEggplant Testtesting for spacesatcommission-critical systems

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