SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is set to launch another batch of cargo to the International Space Station, and that shipment will include a supercomputer from HPE (Hewlett Packard Enterprise). It is called the Spaceborne Computer, and it is the result of years of joint experiments conducted by NASA and HPE, in order to run a high performance commercial computer on the International Space Station. The project goal is to for one year.

Mars in Mind

The whole idea behind this mission is that, right now, many of the calculations needed for space research are done on Earth-located laboratories, which means that it is necessary to send data from the space in order to be analysed. This approach works well when researchers are in the low earth orbit, or on the Moon, but it can become a bottleneck (or a real problem) now that the new goal is to reach Mars. In fact, this could mean that data will require at least 20 minutes to go from Mars to Earth, and vice versa. So, a total or 40 minutes when communications are bidirectional: these are problematic latencies.

A mission to Mars will require computing resources that should be capable of an extended period of uptime, and this is why Spaceborne Computer will be tested for one year.

According to Hewlett Packard, next steps of this experiment will involve sending other computing systems (in particular, Memory-Driven Computing) to the ISS.

Spaceborne Computer

According to HPE, “Spaceborne Computer includes the HPE Apollo 40 class systems with a high speed HPC interconnect running an open-source Linux operating system”, with no hardware modifications, but water-cooled enclosure and software to address the environmental constraints and reliability requirements of supercomputing in space.

HPE’s software will handle systems throttling based on current conditions, like radiation, solar flares, subatomics particles, micrometeoroids, and so on.

“Even without traditional ruggedizing, the system still passed at least 146 safety tests and certifications in order to be NASA-approved for space”.



Rendering of the Spaceborne Computer | Image from: NASA

Once launched to orbit, and during the one year experiment, NASA will check constantly how much the computer will suffer from radiation exposure over these twelve months, and if HPE patches will help in correctly handle “throttling”, in order to keep up and useful the system.

Results will then be compared with an identical computer that HPE will keep on the ground.

As we already said, round-trip communications with Mars could take up to 40 minutes, which means that systems like Spaceborne Computer are firmly required by the austronauts that will go and studry Mars, wouldn’t be thet able to rely on Earth-located scientists.

HPE Experience on Space

Hewlett Packard Enterprise has a 30-years relationship with NASA, through the acquisistion of SGI. SGI and NASA worked together also during the development of the first IRIX system image: it was the 1998.

They also co-developed the supercomputer Columbia, a 10240-CPU cluster, that was recognized as the second fastest supercomputer in the world on 2005.

HPE sees the Spaceborne Computer experiment as a fitting extension to their HPE Apollo portfolio, purpose-built for supercomputing.

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