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Video: HPE goes for Mission to Mars with Supercomputer Launch

In this replay, watch the SpaceX launch of its twelfth Commercial Resupply Services mission (CRS-12) from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida. 

On August 14, SpaceX intends to launch one of its Dragon Spacecraft from Kennedy Space Center to the International Space Station. Part of the payload will be include an HPE supercomputer. This supercomputer, called the Spaceborne Computer, is part of a year-long experiment conducted by HPE and NASA to run a high performance commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computer system in space, which has never been done before. The goal is for the system to operate seamlessly in the harsh conditions of space for one year – roughly the amount of time it will take to travel to Mars.

“Traveling to Mars and further destinations will require more sophisticated computing capabilities to cut down on communication latencies and ensure astronauts’ survival, but existing computing resources are limited and incapable of extended periods of uptime. Settled aboard the SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft, the Spaceborne Computer is a year-long experiment from HPE and NASA—roughly the amount of time it will take to get to Mars—which will test a supercomputer’s ability to function in the harsh conditions of space.”

“By NASA’s rules, not just any computer can go into space. Their components must be radiation hardened, especially the CPUs,” reports HPE Insights. “Otherwise, they tend to fail due to the effects of ionizing radiation. The customized processors undergo years of design work and then more years of testing before they are certified for spaceflight.” As a result, the ISS runs the station using two sets of three Command and Control Multiplexer DeMultiplexer computers whose processors are 20MHz Intel 80386SX CPUs, right out of 1988. “The traditional way to radiation-harden a spacecraft computer is to add redundancy to its circuits or by using insulating substrates instead of the usual semiconductor wafers on chips. That’s expensive and time consuming. HPE scientists believe that simply slowing down a system in adverse conditions can avoid glitches and keep the computer running.” 

Many of the calculations needed for space research projects are still done on Earth due to the limited computing capabilities in space, which creates a challenge when transmitting data to and from space. While this approach works for space exploration on the moon or in low Earth orbit (LEO) when astronauts can be in near real-time communication with Earth, once they travel farther out and closer to Mars, they will experience larger communication latencies. 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. Such a long communication lag would make any on-the-ground exploration challenging and potentially dangerous if astronauts are met with any mission critical scenarios that they’re not able to solve themselves.

A mission to Mars will require sophisticated onboard computing resources that are capable of extended periods of uptime. To meet these requirements, we need to improve technology’s viability in space in order to better ensure mission success. By sending a supercomputer to space, HPE is taking the first step in that direction. Future phases of this experiment will eventually involve sending other new technologies and advanced computing systems, like Memory-Driven Computing, to the ISS once we learn more about how the Spaceborne Computer reacts in space. When the United States successfully put two men on the moon, it captivated the world and inspired technological advancements from the microchip to memory foam. The mission to Mars is the next opportunity to propel technological innovation into the next frontier. 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.

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