With the recent article published on the FMS Blog about structures potentially being built in space, there is yet more exciting news regarding space. This is the knowledge that Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), sister company of HP Inc, has sent a supercomputer to the International Space Station.
It was launched on August 14, 2017 from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on the SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft. The supercomputer, known as the Spaceborne Computer, has the mission of being part of a year long experiment that will be conducted by both HPE and NASA. The goal is to have the system be able to operate seamlessly for one year in the harsh conditions that space exerts, which is roughly equated to the time that it would take to travel to Mars.
Why Is The Spaceborne Computer Important?
A long term goal of space agencies around the world is most likely to have human exploration of Mars, but this is fraught with difficulties that need to be addressed in advance. One of these issues is that the further from Earth an astronaut gets, the longer it will take to communicate with them.
At the moment, most of the calculations that are required for space research projects are still done on Earth. This is because space limits the capabilities of computing, which can lead to a challenge for transmitting data to and from space. For exploration on the moon or when in low Earth orbit, the delay between transmissions is minimal.
The further away from Earth however, the larger the latency between communication. According to HPE, it could take up to 20 minutes for any communication to even reach Earth, followed by another long 20 minutes for responses to reach the astronauts.
This means that if any difficulties or mission critical scenarios were to happen, the astronauts would likely be left on their own to try to solve them. As such, any mission to Mars will require incredibly sophisticated computing resources on board the spacecraft that are capable of producing extended periods of uptime.
But to achieve this goal, the technology needs to show that it has viability in space. There is no point in sending both astronauts and technology to Mars if the technology cannot cope with the rigours of space and space travel. The supercomputer that has been sent to the ISS is step towards ensuring that advanced computing systems are capable of long term space travel.
What Would The Supercomputer Be Exposed To?
The dangers of space are obvious to humans; the lack of atmosphere means that there is no oxygen, so humans cannot breathe and are also subject to immense pressure. The pressure is true for technology as well, but there are plenty of other dangers that space pose, with some affecting technology in particular.
This includes radiation, subatomic particles, unstable electrical power, irregular cooling, solar flares and more. NASA currently combats this by ensuring that any computers for space are “ruggedized“, meaning that they have been hardened so that they can withstand space conditions.
Due to this approach taking both time and money, as well as adding unwanted weight, HPE opted to “harden” their system with software instead. This means that their software will be able to manage real time throttling based on the current conditions as well as being able to mitigate any environmentally induced errors. This meant that the system was able to pass at least 146 safety tests and certifications, allowing it to be NASA approved.
If the experiment proves to be a success, it could be one step closer to Mars for humanity.