It's poetic serendipity that a man named Dr. Goh (pronounced "go") is a principal in a project that will send an experimental new-gen computer go-go-going far, far away aboard a SpaceX rocket early next week. SpaceX's Dragon Spacecraft, loaded with several tons of experiments and supplies alongside the supercomputer, will take wings to the ISS on Monday, 14 August, from NASA's 39A Launch-Pad at the Florida-based launch ground. Aboard the Dragon is a Hewlett-Packard Enterprise supercomputer, a type that has never been in space previously.
Andreoli explained that HPE has a 30-year relationship with NASA that it inherited through its acquisition of computing hardware maker SGI for $275 million in 2016.
The supercomputer, blandly called Spaceborne Computer, contains two of HPE's beefy Apollo servers.
The Linux-running computer has essentially taken a commercial PC and fitted it with a unique water-cooled enclosure, but while Nasa's space computers are typically "ruggedised" to withstand things like radiation, solar flares, subatomic particles and unstable power this has been adapted to survive through special software instead. 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.
HPE is working with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to build technology that can do just that.
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For the year-long experiment, astronauts will install the computer inside a rack in the Destiny module of the space station. Our sister site, The Next Platform, has more details on the hardware, here. Semiconductor electronics are vulnerable to ionizing radiation, like that found in space, as it causes bits to randomly flip thus changing information and crashing programs. "If this idea was successful, then NASA eventually could take the very latest computers with them at launch".
Given the current constraints on computing in space, many calculations needed for space research are performed on Earth. However, that is fine for the station because all of its critical systems are monitored around the clock by ground-based flight controllers who can work in real time with the crew to fix any problems that arise. It will have mirror systems on the ground as backup. 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. For astronauts on Mars, that could mean waiting as long as 40 minutes for communications to reach Earch and back. The further they travel from home the longer the lag or delay of transmission will be, which could be unsafe or even deadly if astronauts are met with mission critical scenarios they cannot solve themselves.
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.
By sending a supercomputer into space, HPE is taking the first step in that direction.