HPE, NASA to Send New Supercomputer Aboard SpaceX

The Spaceborne computer is part of a year-long experiment conducted by HPE and NASA to run a high-performance commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computer system in space, which has never been done before.


It’s poetic serendipity that a man named Dr. Goh (pronounced “go”) is a principal in a project that will send an experimental new-gen computer go-go-going far, far away aboard a SpaceX rocket early next week.

On Aug. 14, the SpaceX-12, developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, will launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla., sending a Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) National Lab. Aboard the Dragon is a Hewlett-Packard Enterprise supercomputer, a type that has never been in space previously.

Dr. Eng Lim Goh, Vice-President and Chief Technical Officer of SGI at HPE (HPE acquired SGI, the former Silicon Graphics, Inc., a year ago for $275 million) is the principal investigator on this project. He won’t be on the flight, but he’ll be watching his handiwork—an item called the called the Spaceborne Computer—on the mission very closely over the next 12 months.

The Spaceborne, designed and built by Dr. Goh and his team, is part of a year-long experiment conducted by HPE and NASA to run a high-performance commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) 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 same amount of time it will take a spaceship to travel to Mars.

Not All IT is Designed for Space Travel

Even though technology plays a huge role in all space flights, IT hardware and software isn’t designed for space travel. Each month, astronauts in the ISS receive new laptops as the atmosphere of space degrades the technology at an accelerated rate. The U.S.’s planned mission to Mars won’t be possible until the space program and the IT sector develop sophisticated computing resources that are capable of extended periods of uptime in space conditions.

HPE is working with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to build technology that can do just that.

Previously, on-board computers for missions like this one are built years in advance and then hardened for protection against the rigors of space travel. However, with the pace of advancement and innovation in this new century, it frequently happens that the software, hardware (or both) built into the spacecraft become obsolete by the time liftoff takes place.

This won’t be the case with HPE’s Spaceborne, which is constructed of standard, openly available hardware but loaded with custom software that can more easily be replaced, patched, maintained and otherwise tweaked as needed. The hardware can more easily be swapped out, too. That kind of agility simply wasn’t available for past space flights.

NASA Needs the Latest Computers On Spacecraft

“We’d been working on a concept for Earth-based computers, in which we would give machines a level of adaptive intelligence, so that they can take care of themselves,” Goh told eWEEK. “The patent process was started, and then we wrote a paper to NASA about how to harden their computers using software. If this idea was successful, then NASA eventually could take the very latest computers with them at launch.”

Thus, the physical hardening of the computers would remain in place, to guard against space-borne problems such as solar flares, cosmic radiation, subatomic particles, micrometeoroids and others.  But the “hardening” of software meant that the computer aboard the spacecraft was future-proofed to be able to provide the latest, fastest-moving software possible.

“Computers on earth are shielded by the thick atmosphere, but as they move toward space, they lose the shielding, and they can incur a lot more errors,” Goh said.

The Spaceborne computer, which is comprised of eight solid-state disks (four 120GB, four 240GB) and servers running Red Hat Linux, will carry Linpack benchmark software, high-performance data extension apps and a suite of specialized NASA applications for carrying out the experiments required. It will have mirror systems on the ground as backup.

“Many 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,” Alain Andreoli, Senior Vice President and General Manager for the HPE Data Center Infrastructure Group, wrote in a blogpost.

Helping Advancing the Mission to Mars

“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, Andreoli said. 

So astronauts will require that type of computing power locally on the spacecraft.

“The Mission to Mars won’t be possible until we develop sophisticated onboard computing resources that are capable of extended periods of uptime,” Andreoli said. “In order to make this happen, we need to improve technology’s viability in space in order ensure astronauts’ survival.”

By sending a supercomputer into space, HPE is taking the first step in that direction. Future phases of this experiment eventually will involve sending other new technologies and advanced computing systems, such as memory-driven computing, to the ISS once Goh and his team learn more about how the Spaceborne computer reacts in space.

More Specs on Spaceborne

Spaceborne includes the HPE Apollo 40-class systems with a high-speed interconnect running the open-source Red Hat Linux operating system. Though there are no hardware modifications to these components, Goh’s team 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.

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

The SpaceX-12 is scheduled to lift off on Monday, Aug. 14, in Florida.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...