Spaceborne Computer makes first small step towards future Mars missions

21 Sep 2017

Scene of Earth from the International Space Station, taken by astronaut Jack Fischer. Image: NASA

The space race has now extended to computer science as HPE announces its Spaceborne Computer has achieved one teraflop of power.

Last month, HP Enterprise (HPE) decided to test its systems in unfamiliar territory, specifically in zero gravity aboard the International Space Station (ISS), with a supercomputer that could one day help us get to Mars.

The 58kg Spaceborne Computer is part of a year-long experiment conducted by HPE and NASA to run a high-performance, commercial, off-the-shelf computer system in space for the first time, thus introducing a new space race, this time in computer science.

Now, HPE has announced that its supercomputer has finally been booted aboard the ISS, achieving a major milestone with a processing power of 1trn calculations, otherwise known as a teraflop.

This made it the first computer system of its kind to achieve such processing power on the ISS and, by its nature, the most powerful outside of Earth.

Compared with existing systems aboard the ISS and other spacecraft that have built-in hardware to protect themselves from the challenges of space, seen in the likes of massive solar hurricanes, the Spaceborne Computer is designed to counteract their effects using software.

It does this by throttling itself in real time based on current conditions, and can mitigate environmentally induced errors, as would be necessary under NASA’s criteria.

In addition, it helps spacecraft to remove a significant amount of weight – an essential commodity in space – as its systems don’t need to be ‘ruggedised’ with hardened equipment.

‘Look! It’s our babies!’

In a blogpost, Mark Fernandez, HPC technology officer for the Americas at HPE, expressed his happiness with the Spaceborne Computer’s results.

“After a few minutes, we’re watching astronauts floating around the ISS. ‘Look! It’s our babies!’ I say as I watch the astronauts bolt the Spaceborne Computer into its designated server rack located in the ceiling.”

He later added: “We’re ecstatic. This is exactly what they’ve been hoping for.”

By developing a platform that can heal itself in real time, HPE hopes that the Spaceborne Computer and future iterations will be able to overcome the hurdle of delayed communications in deep space, and on missions to Mars.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic