the Orion spacecraft with Earth in the background

Eggplant Launches NASA Orion Spacecraft Into History

For the first time in a generation, NASA built a spacecraft to take humans further than they’ve ever gone before. With their Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon and explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. They are collaborating with commercial and international partners, including Keysight Technologies, to establish the first long-term presence on the Moon. The goal is to use what they learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.

Testing the Orion Spacecraft

But long before the Orion launched in November 2022 to inspire a new generation, it needed to be tested to make sure it was infallible and safe for those on-board. This involved testing all the systems, rockets, equipment, splashdown parachutes and more, as well as the software that monitors and controls the aircraft. 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. These monitors need to be continually tested to ensure they operate without faults. To conduct such testing, the Rapid Prototyping Lab (RPL) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center along with the University of Texas at Tyler selected Eggplant Test automation solution.

cockpit of the Orion spacecraft
Eggplant Test ensures the Orion's spacecraft mission control panels operate at 100% when 280,000 miles from Earth.

NASA 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.

According to NASA's Research Paper entitled 'Software Verification of Orion Cockpit Display', “The advantage of Eggplant is that it can be automated to run tests of simulated user interactions on the system under test (SUT) without actual human / physical actions. To do this, Eggplant connects remotely to the SUT and runs programs known as scripts which are a series of commands within a file that is capable of being executed without being compiled.”

“The scripts emulate user interactions on the system such as mouse clicks and keyboard entries. Advanced image recognition technology in Eggplant allows testers the ability to create decision structures that can mimic complex user behaviors. Using the built-in image recognition functions, Eggplant can be scripted to react as the user would to certain events in the software, or to verify if the SUT is acting in accordance with expected results.”

Automating the creation of these Eggplant suites and scripts was a means of reducing time and increasing efficiency.

Eggplant can be automated to perform several iterations of testing and verification. Test automation results in a quicker turnaround time for the RPL, giving them more time to stress-test their software systems and ensure functionality in the event of a change or update to the underlying software.

The Orion spacecraft with two astronauts clicking buttons and knobs on the control panel
The computer in Orion’s service module controls 33 engines and reads over 100 pressure and temperature sensors.

Results and Future Work

Eggplant and their proprietary scripting language SenseTalk, proved to be highly useful tools for automating the testing of the Orion cockpit display simulators.

One of the main goals in NASA’s testing process was to write modular, re-usable code that can be applied to the different displays and enumerations that one encounters.

“The framework standardizes the way in which we code and simulate user inputs, and the Common Eggplant Functions can be used repeatedly in tests of other displays.”

Eggplant Test continues to monitor and test the displays on the Orion for future missions. Artemis 2 is scheduled to launch astronauts around the moon in 2024. If all goes well with that flight, Artemis 3 will aim to put boots down near the lunar south pole a year or two later, using a SpaceX Starship vehicle as a lander.

NASA hopes to build a research base in the south polar region, which is thought to harbor lots of water ice. The agency also plans to build a small space station in lunar orbit called Gateway, which will serve as a jumping-off point for missions to the surface, both crewed and uncrewed. The first components of Gateway are scheduled to launch atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in late 2024.

NASA says, "Moving forward, we hope to use the tools that we have created to test the other displays and popup types. We also want to run repetitive tests to prove that our scripts are functional and obtaining the correct results. Moreover, this iterative testing will validate reliability and consistency of the Orion cockpit display simulation software performance.”

See the Eggplant Test software that NASA is using. Read the full NASA Paper.

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