Elon Musk’s Dragon spacecraft is due to deliver nearly three tonnes of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) this week. Onboard will be a supercomputer that could help humans travel farther into space than ever before.
It won’t be the first high performance computer to leave Earth, but it’s different to its predecessors in one important respect. Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE’s) Spaceborne Computer hasn’t been physically hardened for solar radiation and the other environmental hazards of life on the ISS; it’s essentially a commercial, off-the-shelf system.
Instead, HPE has hardened the computer with software. This gives the unit an advantage over every other computer in space: speed. The process of preparing a computer for the ISS takes time, so when a conventionally hardened unit finally arrives, it’s already several generations old. Non-hardened laptops, meanwhile, have to be replaced every few months.
Astronauts onboard the space station overcome this problem by sending data back to Earth for analysis, but the approach comes with its own set of limitations. It takes time for information to be relayed and the connection can’t be guaranteed. Dr Mark Fernandez, lead payload engineer for the project, explains that this issue would be particularly acute on a year-long trip to Mars.
“If you’ve seen the movie The Martian, you’ve seen how crude the communication were,” he says. “It’s 13 minutes one way and 13 minutes back, so it’s about half an hour between any kind of communications you make. If anything goes wrong on a mission to Mars, you may want to have the general-purpose, high-performance computing capabilities to simulate your options.”
The computer will be trialled on the ISS for at least a year to see how it copes in space. While supercomputers are pushed to their limit on Earth, Fernandez says that by reducing the performance of the Spaceborne system, they may be able to reduce the risk of deterioration.
“I tweak a parameter – whether that be voltage, or temperature – and see if the errors go away,” he says. “I’m treating the symptoms rather than the source. Our CTO Dr Eng Lim Goh estimates that we can run the computer at half speed and it will still be at least twice as fast as anything else that has been hardened.”
If the tests go well, ISS astronauts may start using the computer to analyse the data from their experiments. “As is happening everywhere, there’s a data explosion,” says Fernandez. “The experiments on the ISS are generating more and more data and the scientists want their hands on it immediately. Well, instead of moving the data, let’s move the compute to the data.”
In the long term, the computer could pave the way for missions to Mars, but in the near future, the HPE team are hopeful it will become an integral tool on the ISS.
“Our dream is that [the trial] is wildly successful and the scientific community on the ISS would then have a supercomputer onboard,” he adds. “We’re hoping that it lasts a year and that NASA decides to keep it up there longer.”