Wednesday, 30 August 2017 14:48

HPE sent a supercomputer to space on SpaceX rocket to accelerate Mars mission

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HPE and SpaceX have launched HPE’s Spaceborne supercomputer into space this month aboard the SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft as part of a year-long experiment to test its ability to function in the harsh conditions of space.

Mars, the next frontier. This is the voyage of the Hewlett Packard Spaceborne Enterprise. HPE's continuing mission to send a supercomputer into space, help astronauts explore Mars, to seek out new places to compute, to boldly go where no supercomputer has gone before…

Elon Musk’s SpaceX CRS-12 rocket launched mid this month, sending its Dragon Spacecraft to the International Space Station National Lab, with the HPE’s Spaceborne Computer aboard.

It’s part of a “year-long experiment conducted by HPE and NASA to run a high performance commercial off-the-shelf computer system in space, which has never been done before. The goal is for the system to operate seamlessly in the harsh conditions of space for one year – roughly the amount of time it will take to travel to Mars.”

Although science fiction has placed computers in space for decades, and while there are plenty of computers aboard the ISS, HPE’s Alain Andreoli, SVP and GM of its Data Centre Infrastructure Group, has explained in a blog post why the launch was necessary.

Andreoli states that “any of the calculations needed for space research projects are still done on Earth due to the limited computing capabilities in space, which creates a challenge when transmitting data to and from space".

We’re told that “while this approach works for space exploration on the moon or in low Earth orbit (LEO) when astronauts can be in near real-time communication with Earth, once they travel farther out and closer to Mars, they will experience larger communication latencies.

“This could mean it would take up to 20 minutes for communications to reach Earth and then another 20 minutes for responses to reach astronauts. Such 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.”

This video explains the situation easily and simply in less than two minutes:

So, why else is a supercomputer in space required?

Well, besides the fact HPE tells us its “Spaceborne Computer may cause a ripple effect in other areas of technology innovation”, Andreoli explains that “a mission to Mars will require sophisticated onboard computing resources that are capable of extended periods of uptime".

“To meet these requirements, we need to improve technology’s viability in space in order to better ensure mission success. By sending a supercomputer to space, HPE is taking the first step in that direction.

“Future phases of this experiment will eventually involve sending other new technologies and advanced computing systems, like Memory-Driven Computing, to the ISS once we learn more about how the Spaceborne Computer reacts in space.”

So, what kind of computer is Spaceborne?

HPE explains that it “includes the HPE Apollo 40 class systems with a high speed HPC interconnect running an open-source Linux operating system.

“Though there are no hardware modifications to these components”, HPE created a “unique water-cooled enclosure for the hardware and developed purpose-built system software to address the environmental constraints and reliability requirements of supercomputing in space".

“Generally, in order for NASA to approve computers for space, Andreoli explains that the equipment needs to be “ruggedised” – or hardened to withstand the conditions in space.

“Think radiation, solar flares, subatomic particles, micrometeoroids, unstable electrical power, irregular cooling.”

“This physical hardening takes time, money and adds weight,” with Andreoli stating “HPE took a different approach to ‘harden’ the systems with software.

“HPE’s system software will manage real time throttling of the computer systems based on current conditions and can mitigate environmentally induced errors. Even without traditional ruggedising, the system still passed at least 146 safety tests and certifications in order to be NASA-approved for space.”

Now, lest you think this is HPE’s first foray into space, you may be surprised to discover HPE, via its SGI acquisition, has actually enjoyed “a longstanding, 30-year relationship with NASA".

Andreoli proudly boasts this relationship was “started the co-development of the world's first IRIX single-system image in 1998,” with “great milestones achieved along the way”, such as “the co-development of one of the largest and fastest supercomputers, Columbia, a 10,240-processor supercluster that was named the second fastest supercomputer in the world on the 2004 Top500 list".

Today, HPE notes that “the Spaceborne Computer contains compute nodes of the same class as NASA’s premier supercomputer, Pleiades, currently ranked #9 in the world".

Naturally, Andreoli says HPE sees the Spaceborne Computer experiment as “a fitting extension” to its aptly-named HPE Apollo portfolio, which is “purpose-built for supercomputing".

As you can imagine, HPE says it is “excited to expand its relationship with NASA, pioneering HPC in space and taking one step closer to a mission to Mars".

You can also read a great Q&A dubbed “One Small Step Toward Mars: One Giant Leap for Supercomputing” with Dr. Eng Lim Goh, vice-president & SGI chief technology officer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and the principal investigator for this project.

So, with a mission to Mars on the way, it looks like space really is the final frontier that will take us to infinity, and beyond!

Here is the Spaceborne Computer, please turn phone horizontal if viewing on mobile for the full image: 


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

Alex Zaharov-Reutt is iTWire's Technology Editor is one of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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