The Importance of 30 Minutes

The International Space Station is nearly twenty years old. During almost two decades in low-Earth orbit, the floating laboratory has offered the opportunity to test many a hypothesis in microgravity.

Often, these experiments have to do with biology and biochemistry. Take for instance studying the effects of space radiation on mammalian reproduction, or flatworm regeneration in microgravity. However, hardware also has a place in the lab.

The current computers on the ISS – the ones that operate the station – run on a microprocessor first introduced in 1985. That may not sound like enough to power the 72.8 m (239 ft) station however, these computers are supported by 24/7 monitoring from the ground by even more powerful computers.

Image Credit: NASA

The system does the job, for now. It doesn’t take long for information to travel from the ISS to the ground. However, when humans eventually get to the Red Planet, communicating between Mars and Earth will result in a bit of a delay. No, not quite a la The Martian. More like 30 minutes each way.

This may not sound like much, but, as Alain Andreoli, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise’s (HPE) senior vice president of its data center infrastructure group explained in a blog post:

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.

Essentially, half an hour could cost someone their life.

Hardened Software

So why aren’t scientists just sending better computers to space? Well, space travel is pretty rough on technology, and NASA has high demands. Computers aboard the ISS need to withstand space-related problems such as “radiation, solar flares, subatomic particles, micrometeoroids, unstable electrical power, irregular cooling,” explained Andreoli. This "hardening" process results in additional costs and unnecessary bulk.

Image Credit: NASA

What if traditional, off-the-shelf computer components could be made to withstand the rigors of space? NASA and HPE are working together to find out. Monday, a SpaceX rocket will launch a supercomputer called the Spaceborne Computer to the ISS for a year-long experiment (coincidently, the amount of time it would take humans to get to Mars).

The computer has not been hardened for the radiation environment on the space station in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s been “software hardened.” The goal is to better understand how space will degrade the performance of an off-the-shelf computer. Meanwhile, back on Earth, an identical model will run in a lab as a control.

The computer is only about the size of two pizza boxes stuck together. It has a special water-cooled enclosure as well as custom software that can automatically adjust for environmentally-induced computer errors. It may not be the most powerful computer on the market, but with its 1 teraflop computing speed, it’ll be the most powerful computer ever sent into space.

If this experiment works, it opens up a universe of possibility for high performance computing in space.

“This goes along with the space station’s mission to facilitate exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” Mark Fernandez, HPE’s leading payload engineer for the project, told Ars Technica. “If this experiment works, it opens up a universe of possibility for high performance computing in space.”

Not only will this result in better computers aboard the ISS and other NASA crafts that can send humans farther into space, but it will also help with experiments on the ISS. Fernandez explains that scientists could use an on-board supercomputer for data processing, rather than sending the data back to Earth.

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