HPE, NASA to Send New Supercomputer Aboard SpaceX

Gwen Vasquez
August 12, 2017

It can hit about one teraflop in terms of performance, we're told, will mostly run benchmarking software on Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and will be built out of two HPE Apollo Intel x86 servers with a 56Gbps interconnect.

On Aug. 14, the SpaceX-12, developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX, will launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., sending a Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) National Lab. The goal is for the system to operate seamlessly in the harsh conditions of space for one year-roughly the same amount of time it will take a spaceship 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".

HPE is working with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to build technology that can do just that. Most of these Hardy Thinkbooks have a very short lifespan in space, some only lasting a few months. The hardware can more easily be swapped out, too. This is why the experiment is critical in developing a high-performance computing system that can be relied upon.

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Currently, numerous calculations needed for space research projects are still done on Earth due to the limited computing capabilities in space, according to HPE. Although this approach works fine during low-Earth orbit or moon mission, it is not suitable for deep space missions as it would take about 20 minutes for a message to reach a ground station and another 20 minutes for the response to reach astronauts if they get near Mars. The large orbital laboratory offers private companies a chance to test business ideas in microgravity, serves as a testbed for astronaut health, and allows NASA to prove technologies for future missions into deep space. "By sending a supercomputer to space, HPE is taking the first step in that direction", he wrote. 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. 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.

The Spaceborne experiment could also have a knock-on effect back on Earth with any breakthroughs in the software technology potentially trickling down to consumer PCs for next-generation high performance computing.

Generally, in order for NASA to approve computers for space, the equipment needs to be "ruggedized", or hardened to withstand the conditions in space, Andreoil explained. No modifications have been made to this space-bound HPE hardware, though - it is straight out of the factory - however HPE did create a "water-cooled enclosure" that acts as a buffer between the computer and the bit-flipping subatomic particles whizzing about the universe.

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

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