When the rocket Scorpion heart It will fly to the International Space Station (ISS) on February 20, and will have on board an unusual package: a supercomputer designed to allow scientific experiments and data analysis to be performed in space.
Spaceborne Computer-2 is the successor to the first laptop in space, which was sent to the International Space Station in 2017. “At that time, we especially wanted to check if it would survive the launch of the rocket, if astronauts could install it in the station,” Mark said Fernandes, Ph.D., Senior Researcher at Spaceborne Computer-2 at the Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), at a structured online presentation to international journalism earlier this if it were to withstand conditions in space for at least a year. A week.
The experiment was a success, with a stay of more than a year and a half on the International Space Station. The first laptop from space achieved more than 1 teraflops of computing power in space, a scale sometimes used to estimate the power of computers. The brand is small compared to terrestrial supercomputers (Niagara, the most powerful supercomputer in Canada, exceeds 3000 teraflops), but it is still much better than what other computers on the International Space Station have to offer.
For this new mission, the second version of the space supercomputer will be twice as powerful, and this time it will stay in space for two to three years, or the equivalent period of a mission to Mars. The device will also have a server dedicated to advanced computing, a technology in which data obtained from various sensors are analyzed locally instead of being sent to data centers. On the ground, such a system would be deployed on an oil platform, for example. Thanks to graphics cores (which were absent from the first laptop in space), this server will significantly allow for the use of artificial intelligence and image analysis tools.
This supercomputer opens the door to all kinds of experiments, notes Mark Fernandez. It could, for example, analyze data collected by sensors visualizing the Earth from the International Space Station to follow the melting of polar peaks locally rather than sending them to Earth. “Sensors are evolving much faster than technology to communicate from space to Earth. There is a bottleneck effect that restricts us now,” he says. Currently, some of the data collected on board the station has to be returned to hard drives for analysis on the ground, delaying results for several months.
Astronauts can also use the computer to evaluate the quality of the 3D-printed parts on board the space station, for example.
While the electronic equipment on board the space station is often modified and optimized for space, this is not the case with Spaceborne Computer-2, which is identical in all respects to the HPE servers sold on Earth. Only the case in which the device is installed is unique.
Instead of being hardened physically, the computer is hardened by using software that monitors the device’s performance in real time, for example, to slow it down when radiation levels are high. “It helps protect the system and preserve our data,” says Mark Fernandez. The patented software protection is lighter and more affordable than hardware protection, in addition to making it easier to use the latest technology.
Technically speaking, Spaceborne Computer-2 consists of two identical units, each equipped with two types of servers (Edgeline EL4000 and ProLiant DL360, for the curious).
Today is the space station, tomorrow is Mars
Even if Spaceborne Computer-2 is useful on the space station, its real interest is especially focused in the long term, to accompany astronauts to the moon and during NASA’s first manned flights to Mars, planned for the next decade.
A radio signal takes about 20 minutes to travel from Mars to Earth. If astronauts have to quickly perform complex calculations to ensure they survive (for a new path, for example), they may not have the time to send their requests to NASA and wait for a response. For this kind of situation, a supercomputer would prove essential.
Computers could also be important to astronauts’ mental health. They will have to perform many daily tasks, such as making sure that some filters are working properly. Mark Fernandez says these grueling chores can be difficult to handle psychologically during a multi-year assignment. With AI tools, a computer can likely automate some of these tasks.
However, the researcher notes that “the computer will not be responsible for systems such as navigation, communication and life support.” This should reassure those who will inevitably compare the supercomputer to the HAL 9000 from 2001: Space Flight.
Other specialized NASA computers, with space-adapting components and an operating system different from those commonly used, will take care of these platforms.
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