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Launching a supercomputer into space

Speed read
  • Space travel demands big computing power, but until recently astronauts relied on Earthbound computers
  • HPE and NASA teamed up to put a supercomputer on the International Space Station
  • Outside scientists will have free access to the machine that should help us eventually travel to Mars

The world needs more scientists like Dr. Mark Fernandez. His southern drawl and warm personality almost make you overlook the fact that he’s probably forgotten more about high-performance computing (HPC) than you’ll ever know. 

The Spaceborne Computer is currently flying aboard the International Space Station to prove that high-performance computing hardware can survive and operate in outer space conditions. Courtesy HPE.

Fernandez is the Americas HPC Technology Officer for Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE). His current baby is the Spaceborne Computer, a supercomputer that has spent more than a year aboard the International Space Station (ISS). 

In this time, the Spaceborne Computer has run through a gamut of tests to ensure it works like it’s supposed to. Now, it’s a race to accomplish as much as possible before the machine is brought home.

Computing for the stars

The Spaceborne Computer’s history extends well before its launch to the ISS. In fact, Fernandez explains that the project began about three years prior.   

NASA Ames was in a meeting with us in the summer of 2014 and they said that, for a mission to Mars or for a lunar outpost, the distance was so far that they would not be able to continue their mission of supporting the space explorers,” says Fernandez. “And so they just sort of off-handedly said, 'take part of our current supercomputer and see what it would take to get it operating in space.' And we took up the challenge.”

<strong>Instant calculations.</strong> Because of the time it takes data to travel between space and NASA scientists on Earth, long-range missions—such as to Mars—will require high-performance computers on board to provide quick solutions to urgent engineering problems. Courtesy NASA.When astronauts send and receive data to and from Earth, this information is moving at the speed of light. In the ISS, which is 240 miles (400 kilometers) away from Earth, data transmission still happens very quickly. The same won’t be true when humans begin our journey into the rest of the cosmos.

“All science and engineering done here on Earth requires some type of high performance computing to make it function,” says Fernandez. “You don't want to be 24 minutes away and trying to do your Mars dust storm predictions. You want to be able to take those scientific and engineering computations that are currently done here on Earth and bring them with you.”

To get ready for these kinds of tasks, the Spaceborne Computer has spent the past year performing standard benchmarking tests in what Fernandez calls the “acceptance phase.” Now that these experiments are done, it’s time to get interesting. 

The sky’s not the limit

For traditional supercomputers, powering and cooling the machine often represents a huge cost. This isn’t true in space.

<strong>Entry, descent, and landing (EDL). </strong> The Spaceborne Computer will be testing EDL software that determines spacecraft location in real time and adjusts thrusters for a precise landing—an essential step for building a Mars habitat. Courtesy NASA/Johnson Space Center.“The Moderate Temperature Loop (MTL) is how the environment for the human astronauts is maintained at a certain temperature,” says Fernandez. “Our experiments are allowed to tap into that MTL, and that's where we put our heat. Our heat is then expelled into the coldness of space for free. We have free electricity coming from the solar cells, and we have free cooling from the coldness of space and therefore, by definition, we have the most energy efficient supercomputer in existence anywhere on Earth or elsewhere.”

The cost-neutral aspect of the Spaceborne Computer allows HPE to give researchers access to the machine for free before it must return to Earth. One of these experiments, announced at SC18, concerns Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) software.

“If you’re going to build a Mars habitat, you need to land carefully,” says Fernandez. “This EDL software runs in real time, it’s connected to the thrusters on the spacecraft, and in real time determines where you are and adjusts your thrusters so that you can land within 50 meters of your target. Now, it’s never been tested in space, and the only place it will ever run is in space. So they’re very excited about getting it to run on the Spaceborne Computer.”

<strong>Space walk.</strong> Conference attendees explore the model of the ISS at HPE’s booth at SC18, the world’s biggest supercomputing conference, held in Dallas, TX in November 2018. Courtesy Alisa Alering.While Fernandez is delighted that his machine will be able to test important innovations like this, he seems dismayed by all the science he won’t be able to do. The Spaceborne Computer will soon be brought back home by NASA, and he’s doing what he can to cram in as many important experiments as possible.

Fernandez’s attitude speaks volumes about the mental outlook we’ll need to traverse the cosmos. He often uses the term “space explorers” in place of “astronauts” or even “researchers.” It’s a term that cuts to the heart of what scientists like him are attempting to do.

“We're proud to be good space explorers,” says Fernandez. “I say, let’s all work together. We’ve got free electricity. We have free cooling. Let's push science as far and as hard as we can.”

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