The International Space Station awaits something unique on its next resupply delivery -- a supercomputer. SpaceX will deliver the goods for NASA and Hewlett Packard Enterprise who is sending the computer. The ultimate goal: to see if high-performance computing hardware can survive in outer space with no extra assistance.
The year-long experiment takes computers where they've never gone before. Astronauts will place the computer next to the Destiny module of the space station. The device only has the computing speed of 1 teraflop. However, this still makes it the most impressive computer ever sent into space. Throughout its year-long mission, the crew will run programming on the computer to gauge its performance. A second version of the same computer will remain grounded. The ISS team will compare the space computer against control.
Cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin, flight engineer, using a computer in his sleep station in 2003. Reliance on computers has only grown since this photo was taken. [Image Source: NASA]
The success of this computer experiment could change the game for NASA. Moving people beyond Mars will require extra computing powers. Those computers will need to excel in a deep space environment, handling radiation and whatever else comes its way. These computers would also help tackle inevitable communication delays. Communication between Earth and Mars could be as long as half an hour. That time difference can make or break a team stationed at Mars. The better the computer, the smarter the spacecraft.
Mark Fernandez lead the Hewlett Packard Enterprise team as a payload engineer. He said the need for this computer to work grows with every step we take toward Mars.
"Suppose there’s some critical computations that need to be made, on the mission to Mars or when we arrive at Mars, we really need to plan ahead and make sure that that computational capacity is available to them, and it’s not three- or five-year old technology," Fernandez said in an interview with TechCrunch. "We want to be able to get to them the latest and greatest technology."
The distance between the ISS and Earth will be significantly faster than the Mars-Earth latency. However, that doesn't mean time on the ISS is any less precious, especially when it comes to efficiency for astronauts.
"One of the things that’s popular today is ‘Let’s move the compute to the data, instead of moving the data to the compute,’ because we’re having a data explosion," Fernandez said.
"Well that’s occurring elsewhere as well. The ISS is bringing on board more and more experiments. Today those scientists know how to analyze the data on Earth, and they want to send the data down to Earth. It’s not a Mars-type latency, but still you’ve got to get your data, got to process it and got to get back and change your experimental parameters. Suppose, like at every other national lab in the nation, the computer was right down the office from you."
The information gathered from this experiment is also going to be of important use for the sending agency -- SpaceX. Elon Musk consistently collaborates with researchers at the ISS, and in late July, he presented SpaceX's next moves at the ISS Research and Development Conference. He's just as big a NASA fanboy as most other Aeronautics junkies. He even owned up to using the password "I love NASA" for several years.
[Image Source: SpaceX via Flickr]
For Musk, a successful supercomputer could expand the horizons of what he plans to do -- especially in terms of landing his gear. With as much as Musk and NASA collaborate with each other on a growing scale, we'd love to see SpaceX go in with the ISS or another NASA program in the Mars venture.
As of now, SpaceX is just serving as a vehicle to a larger goal, on that Fernandez says he hopes will simply help ISS astronauts as best it can.
"I want to help all the scientists on board, and that's one of the dreams of this experiment," he noted.