International Space Station set to receive its first supercomputer

Image BRESNIK HANDOUT  REX  Shutterstock
Image BRESNIK HANDOUT REX Shutterstock
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13 August, 2017

"This goes along with the space station's mission to facilitate exploration beyond low Earth orbit", Mark Fernandez, HPE's leading payload engineer for the project, told Ars. The launch of the supercomputer is a part of a joint experiment, conducted by the U.S. space agency NASA and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. He will keep watch on his brainchild, the Spaceborne Computer-on the mission very closely over the next 12 months. It's part of an experiment to examine if commercial off-the-shelf computers can survive a year in space, what with all the radiation, vibrations and so on, something that will be useful to know for the long trip to Mars.

While Elon Musk is raring to get Earthlings on their merry way to Mars until the computing resources are available to confidently cope with space and not degrade during the long journey Nasa missions will not be able to take off. Most of these Hardy Thinkbooks have a very short lifespan in space, some only lasting a few months. These additions were built to ensure the supercomputer can withstand space-related problems like "radiation, solar flares, subatomic particles, micrometeoroids, unstable electrical power, irregular cooling", he said. And while the device is not exactly a state-of-the-art supercomputer-it has a computing speed of about 1 teraflop-it is the most powerful computer sent into space.

This could mean it would take up to 20 minutes for communications to reach Earth and then another 20 minutes for responses to reach astronauts. The supercomputer, dubbed 'Spaceborne Computer, ' is meant to remain operational on board ISS at least for a year, which according to the company, is roughly equal to the period, ISS takes to make a trip to Mars.

A "smart" spacecraft, however, will require a considerably more powerful and robust computer.

"The Mission to Mars won't be possible until we develop sophisticated onboard computing resources that are capable of extended periods of uptime", Andreoli said.

By sending a supercomputer into space, HPE is taking the first step in that direction. 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. 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. Though there are no hardware modifications to these components, Goh's team created a unique water-cooled enclosure for the hardware and developed purpose-built system software to address the environmental constraints and reliability requirements of supercomputing in space. 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.

The SpaceX-12 is scheduled to lift off on Monday, Aug. 14, in Florida.


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