On Monday, August 19, 2017, a Space X Falcon 9 rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The three-day flight ended Wednesday when the Dragon Spacecraft module, atop the Falcon, docked at the International Space Station (ISS). It was there to deliver supplies, including two high-performance Hewlett-Packard Enterprise computers called the Spaceborne Computer (SBC 1 and SBC 2).
These supercomputers are capable of a teraflop of computing power, and they’re part of a yearlong experiment to see if a COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) computer can function properly in space for 12 months. The performance of the SBCs will be closely tracked along with twin COTS called the Earth-bound Computer (EBC 1 and 2), which will be set up 254 miles beneath the orbit of the ISS.
You might recall another high-profile NASA experiment involving another pair—identical twins Scott and Mark Kelly. Before his return on March 1, 2016, Scott had been up in space for 340 days, well beyond the normal stay of four to six months for ISS missions. The length of Scott’s suspension above the earth was to provide scientists with insight into what happens to a human body in space over an extended period of time.
The rationale is different for the twin pairs of SBCs and EBCs. That experiment will test a supercomputer’s ability to function in the changing radiation climate of the ISS. NASA explains two different sets of problems that radiation causes computers. In space, “Radiation is likely to have a number of unanticipated effects on complex computer systems. This experiment helps identify critical failure points in electronic systems, as well as potential software ‘patches’ that can prevent them.”
The goal for the SBCs is to help design a radiation-resistant computer that can use software rather than bulky titanium vaults or other expensive solutions to protect the onboard computers—software that can provide real-time throttling to adjust to changing radiation levels, power dips, and temperature swings.
The earthbound computers will monitor the SBCs, but they’re also affected by radiation events such as solar flares. It’s expected that the EBCs will help identify dynamic software solutions to minimize radiation risk to any unprotected computing resources here.
Why two sets of identical COTS for each location? NASA explains the logic this way: “Not only do two systems provide redundancy, but also, one of each pair remains in a maximum and steady power/performance state for the duration of the experiment, while the other’s performance is dynamically changed by raising and lowering the electrical power settings.”
In the August 11, 2017, Hewlett Packard announcement of the experiment, there’s no doubt that HP sees the project as much more than the pursuit of better protection for computers on the space station. The announcement’s headline was “Hewlett Packard Enterprise Sends Supercomputer into Space to Accelerate Mission to Mars.” The HP engineers see their ultimate goal as space-hardened supercomputers that will provide onboard communications, navigation, and other controls for a yearlong mission to Mars. They explain that reducing communication latencies over the tremendous distances is critical to astronauts’ survival. If it takes up to 20 minutes for communications to reach Earth and then another 20 minutes for responses to reach astronauts, those pauses could be lethal if astronauts met any mission critical circumstances they aren’t able to solve themselves.
In his book Endurance, Scott Kelly explains, “I know that we won’t be able to push out farther into space, to a destination like Mars, until we can learn more about how to strengthen the weakest links in the chain—the human body and mind.” At a House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology meeting, Kelly was asked about the possibility of a Mars mission in 2033 when the planets will be aligned in a way that favors such a flight. Kelly responded that he thought it was feasible.
With the 12-month SBC/EBC experiments, NASA and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise have begun a series of tests for the digital “minds” that could control the communications and other critical systems on rockets. Considering the curve of rapid improvement in modern supercomputers, the next 16 years might well produce the hardened and agile computers needed for that first human flight to another planet.