International Space Station set to receive its first supercomputer

Cesar Mills
August 12, 2017

The astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are about to welcome a new member in their midst next week. Aboard the Dragon is a Hewlett-Packard Enterprise supercomputer, a type that has never been in space previously.

Dr Eng Lim Goh, vice-president and chief technical officer of SGI at HPE (HPE acquired SGI, the former Silicon Graphics, Inc, a year ago for $275 million) is the principal investigator in the project.

The life of Spaceborne Computer will be about one year-roughly the amount of time a spacecraft will take to reach Mars from Earth.

Even though technology plays a huge role in all space flights, IT hardware and software isn't designed for space travel. Regular supplies of laptops are sent each time a cargo vessel is launched. The ISS is the ideal place for private companies to test business ideas in microgravity, and NASA to test new technologies for future missions into deep space. Unlike most computers, it has not been hardened for the radiation environment aboard the space station.

This won't be the case with HPE's Spaceborne, which is constructed of standard, openly available hardware but loaded with custom software that can more easily be replaced, patched, maintained and otherwise tweaked as needed. Our sister site, The Next Platform, has more details on the hardware, here. But the "hardening" of software meant that the computer aboard the spacecraft was future-proofed to be able to provide the latest, fastest-moving software possible. This is why the experiment is critical in developing a high-performance computing system that can be relied upon. It will have mirror systems on the ground as backup.

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Currently, numerous calculations needed for space research projects are done on earth because of the limited computing capabilities in space, according to HPE. In that situation, the astronauts are likely to become more reliant on more powerful computers and artificial intelligence to make critical course corrections or decisions within seconds or minutes.

So astronauts will require that type of computing power locally on the spacecraft. As a result, "a long communication lag would make any on-the-ground exploration challenging and potentially unsafe if astronauts are met with any mission critical scenarios that they're not able to solve themselves", Alain Andreoli, HPE's senior vice president of its data center infrastructure group, said in a blog post. The goal is to ensure that supercomputers can operate without problems during extended periods in space, such as would be required for a year-long mission to Mars, HPE said.

As the ISS de-orbits, the world will be in need a of a new space station; Axiom is taking on this challenge, creating the first global commercial space station to host government astronauts, private companies, and individual explorers alike. The Spaceborne Computer experiment will not only show us what needs to be done to advance computing in space, it will also spark discoveries for how to improve high performance computing on Earth and potentially have a ripple effect in other areas of technology innovation.

The machine, dubbed Spaceborne Computer, is based on the Apollo 40 class systems and runs Linux. To accomplish this, HPE built a software system that can automatically adjust for environmentally-induced computer errors, while adjusting the Spaceborne's Computers performance based on current conditions. NASA only approves computers for space use if they've been sufficiently ruggedized in order to withstand space conditions - like radiation, solar flares, subatomic particles, micrometeoroids, and so on.

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