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Sunday, June 16, 2024

NC Trend: Xtern Software helps prep travel to Mars.

A small North Carolina technology outfit is making waves in the field of Mars travel. Xtern Software, a Greensboro custom software development company, is playing a behind-the-scenes but integral role in Artemis, NASA’s upcoming manned mission to the moon.

Back in the early ’80s, 10-year-old Greensboro native Keir Davis spent a lot of free time tinkering with computers. “This hobby that I’ve had, maybe it could really be a career,” he recalls thinking. After earning a degree in broadcast communications at UNC Chapel Hill, Davis veered into software and earned a master’s in computer science in 2000.

After working for a software integration business, Davis founded Xtern Software in 2002.

Xtern’s initial successes involved desktop software for manufacturing companies, though work has now shifted to be more web- and mobile-focused. The company’s core clients remain manufacturers such as furniture maker Lloyd Flanders, though other clients include Lagos Fine Jewelry and various departments within UNC Greensboro.

One of Xtern’s value propositions is that their work is done locally and not outsourced. “If you can dream it and think it up, then we can build it for you,” says Davis,
who remains the company owner.

One of space travel’s biggest challenges is preventing interpersonal conflict onboard the vessel. The constant isolation, confinement and prolonged separation make selecting and monitoring astronauts huge factors of a successful mission. 

Teaming up with NASA, researchers from Northwestern University’s Communications and Engineering departments are building a software interface called Tool for Evaluating And Mitigating Space Team Risks, or TEAMSTaR. The team uses the behavior modeling tool to study the optimal composition of astronauts for long-distance missions.

As the Northwestern team is building the algorithms that predict human behavior, they require a special software for TEAMSTaR. It required a great depth of knowledge in software development. After responding to Northwestern’s RFP, Xtern was selected for the task. Most of Xtern’s developers have master’s degrees in computer science, company officials say.

While the project’s data modeling and simulation software is done by Northwestern, Xtern handles the website and infrastructure side. “What we’ve created is the entire interface around it that the people in Houston will use on the ground to interact with and run models, and on the spaceship as well,” explains Davis. TEAMSTaR will help determine which
four people, out of 115 candidates, will be selected for the Artemis mission.

Although Xtern has its sights on space, it focuses on the Greensboro community. “We are so proud to recruit and retain technology talent within the Triad,” Davis says. Nine of its 13 employees are UNC Greensboro graduates. Its office is located at the edge of Greensboro’s historic Fisher Park neighborhood, across from Latham Park, which the staff helps maintain through the city’s Adopt-a-Park program. Xtern also takes part in home repair with Community Housing Solutions and hosts site visits for UNC Greensboro students interested in technology. All but one of Xtern’s employees live and work in Greensboro.

Reliable software poses a difficult task in space travel. The connection between Earth and Mars is slow, as data must travel millions of miles each way. There won’t be a way for astronauts to communicate with Earth in real time, so Xtern’s software has to function independently. Northwestern’s behavioral models will need to be rerun during the mission to continue monitoring the crew, 24 hours a day. That’s a huge task, given that a Mars mission is expected to occur over a few years, not months.

The bulk of the work being done now by Xtern and Northwestern is for Artemis II, which is slated for September 2025. This mission is being viewed largely as a manned test run, gathering data for a Mars mission as early as the 2030s.

Davis and his team are proud to work on a historic mission.  

They’re making sure everyone’s mark gets left in space. “The code set that we’re putting together, every single employee has contributed at least one line of code for a spaceship, even the office manager,” Davis says.

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