NASA is putting a supercomputer into orbit so we can eventually get to Mars

Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s unassuming Spaceborne Computer will test supercomputing reliability with NASA’s help on the International Space Station. 


HAL seemed to have little trouble in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but here’s the problem with computers in space: a constant stream of cosmic rays seriously disrupt electronics.

That’s why Hewlett Packard Enterprise and NASA are testing how well supercomputing technology works on the International Space Station. A SpaceX rocket scheduled to lift off Monday will carry a machine called the Spaceborne Computer that will see whether software techniques can catch and correct errors induced by the radiation from our sun and galaxy that reaches low Earth orbit. HPE announced the work Friday.

The research ultimately could improve computers here on Earth — but also get humans to Mars.

“Mars is the next frontier, and we need supercomputing to get there. Mars astronauts won’t have near-instant access to high-performance computing (HPC) like those in low-Earth orbit do — the red planet is 26 light minutes round-trip away,” said Mark Fernandez, Americas technology officer at HPE’s SGI business unit. Supercomputers can be used for tasks like figuring out what to do if a spacecraft or Mars habitation has a system failure.

The Spaceborne Computer is nothing like the mammoth supercomputers on Earth, which take up rooms the size of basketball courts to tackle complex challenges like simulating the planet’s weather or the effects of aging on nuclear weapons. But it uses the same basic technology, including Intel processors and a high-speed interconnect to join the system’s independent computing nodes.

In this case, the computer employs a 56Gbps optical interconnect to link its different nodes. That’s fast enough data-transfer speed to transfer three episodes of “Game of Thrones” from one machine to another in less than a second.

Space is a tough environment, but it has its perks. One of them is that the machine’s water cooling system can poke out into space, keeping the machine from overheating for free. On Earth, cooling data centers is a major expense for companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft that operate thousands upon thousands of machine.

The challenge for the Spaceborne Computer is to get it all working despite cosmic rays. The Earth’s magnetic field protects the planet’s surface from these electrically charged particles — protons and other particles that stream in from our sun, elsewhere in the galaxy and sometimes even other galaxies. They carry so much energy they can blast electronics out of whack, corrupting memory and messing up calculations.

Some computers destined for space have special shielding and other protection, but not this one. Instead of hardware changes, the computer employs software layers to for detection, correction and protection, Fernandez said. “Success would be … correct results for a year,” he said.

And that’s the kind of reliability that could benefit us even here on Earth. 

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