Spaceflight

Supercomputer set to launch on space station mission

A supercomputer built by Hewlett Packard Enterprise will be on board a SpaceX spacecraft when it launches on a resupply mission to the International Space Station Monday. The computer will be used in a year-long high-performance computing experiment during its time in orbit.

The Spaceborne Computer will be in the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft that is scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 14. Designed to eventually support astronauts’ computing and communication needs on missions to Mars, the technology will be closely monitored during its time on the ISS.

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The computer harnesses HPE Apollo 40 class computer systems with a high performance computing interconnect running a Linux operating system.

“We didn’t make any hardware modifications to these components; instead we 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,” explained Mark Fernandez, Americas technology officer of SGI at HPE, in an email to Fox News.

Factors that could impact computing during space missions include unstable electrical power, irregular cooling, radiation, solar flares, subatomic particles and micrometeoroids.

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“Generally, in order for NASA to approve computers for space, the equipment needs to be 'ruggedized' – or hardened to withstand the conditions in space," Fernandez added. "This physical hardening takes time, money and adds weight, so HPE took a different approach to ‘harden’ the systems with software.”

Mars is about 140 million miles away from Earth and astronauts could experience larger communication delays the closer they get to the Red Planet. It could take as much as 20 minutes for communications to reach Earth and another 20 minutes for the responses to reach astronauts, according to HPE.

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NASA’s long-term goal is to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. The Spaceborne Computer aims to ensure that astronauts will have sufficient tech firepower and robust communication links when they eventually journey to Mars.

“This launch represents the first step into the next frontier of space exploration—a mission to Mars,” Fernandez told Fox News. “Mars astronauts won’t have near-instant access to high performance computing like those in low-earth orbit do.”

Estimates of a Mars journey’s duration range from six months to a year.

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“Having a supercomputer onboard the spacecraft will allow our deep space explorers to access the data they need to meet any challenge in real time,” said Fernandez. “But first we need to figure out how to make a supercomputer function flawlessly in orbit. That’s what we aim to research through this experiment.”

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers