While the International Space Station (ISS) is a technological marvel, it has not traditionally had a lot of onboard processing capacity. That changed last year when NASA delivered a supercomputer to the station. It was only there for a test run, but now the agency plans to use it for processing data and running experiments. Eventually, NASA and manufacturer HP hope to understand why some parts of the computer work well in orbit and others don’t.
The Spaceborne Computer is a joint project between NASA and HP to study how supercomputers operate in space. Most computers aboard the ISS and other space missions have been designed with hardened chips and custom hardware for long-term operation in high-radiation, low-gravity environments. They’re also very slow compared with the computers we have on Earth. For The Spaceborne Computer project, HP shipped an off-the-shelf “Apollo” supercomputer to the ISS in 2017 where astronauts ran diagnostic tests.
On Earth, the Apollo system weighs in at a hefty 124 pounds and pushes a teraflop of processing power. In space, NASA knew the computer would have zero weight (it’s bolted to the ceiling), and there was concern its processing power could also be nil. The goal was to find out how quickly the off-the-shelf computer broke down, but it’s worked for over a year.
The hardware wasn’t changed at all for the flight, but HP did make tweaks to the software. The Linux OS was reprogrammed to check for errors at a higher rate and to better cope with power failures. NASA reports the supercomputer is about 30 times faster than a typical laptop, but the system’s storage isn’t doing well. The Apollo system has 30 SSDs, but nine of them have failed. That’s an unheard-of failure rate on Earth.
HP and NASA plan to dissect the computer when it comes back to Earth to learn why certain pieces of hardware (like the 32 CPU cores) worked well while other components (the SSDs) are failing. The return might be on hold, though. Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is currently grounded while Roscosmos and NASA investigate the recent launch failure that sent two ISS-bound passengers back to Earth.
While things get back on track, NASA has decided to put the supercomputer to good use. It has not detailed what the system will do, but it could save NASA a lot of time. A supercomputer on the ISSS could analyze large data sets in place rather than sending them back over the data stream. When it does relay data, the computer could compress it to make better use of available bandwidth.
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