The International Space Station is about to become a lot more powerful. NASA and Hewlett-Packard Enterprises are teaming up to send a computer with nearly 1 teraflop of power into space on board a SpaceX rocket. It’s the most powerful computer to be on the ISS and the closest thing to a supercomputer to ever go beyond the atmosphere.
The computer left this week on board SpaceX’s Falcon 9 as part of a regularly scheduled supply mission to the space station. The powerful computer has around a teraflop of power, which represents a trillion floating-point operations per second. To put it in perspective, a high-end laptop also has around a teraflop of power, and Microsoft recently announced a gaming system with six teraflops. If this computer works, it will be the most powerful, off-the-shelf, commercial computer to ever operate in space.
Astronauts will install to the computer—about the size of two pizza boxes stuck together—inside the Destiny module on the ISS. Over the course of a year, NASA will run various tests on the computer and measure its performance. The computer isn’t coated in radioactive shielding so NASA can see how its abilities degrade in space without any protection. A duplicate computer will run the same tests on Earth for comparative results.
“This goes along with the space station’s mission to facilitate exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” says Mark Fernandez, HPE’s leading payload engineer for the project. ”If this experiment works, it opens up a universe of possibility for high performance computing in space.”
Space Travel Testing Ground
The ISS often serves as an orbiting lab for private companies to test their ideas and for NASA to conduct research for future missions. There’s no doubt that the next phase of space travel will take humans to Mars, but one of the biggest roadblocks is computing power and communications—that’s where the huge computer comes in.
The experiment will set the stage for future human trips to places beyond the moon. First on the list of destinations is Mars, which is a journey of six to eight months depending on its location in orbit. The further humans are from Earth, the longer it takes for communications to travel. Messages would eventually take half an hour to travel through space, which is an eternity when things can change drastically in an instant with space travel and lead to life or death situations. With a powerful computer and eventually some degree of artificial intelligence on board, messages can be sent and received much more quickly and adjustments can be made closer to real time to keep the astronauts on board safe. It’s all in an effort to eventually create a “smart” spacecraft that can make course corrections and critical decisions in an instant no matter where it is in space. HPE also has long-term plans that astronauts could eventually use a supercomputer on board the ISS to process their experiments right there, instead of clogging the limited bandwidth between space and Earth with their raw data. NASA’s goal is to send even more powerful computers to the space station and other spacecraft if this experiment goes well.
A supercomputer in space also opens the door satellite images, especially for companies that are anxious to get better satellite images for things like farming, crops, and oil. High-definition images require 200-300 times more data, which can overwhelm the limited communication bandwidth between the ISS and land. If this experiment is successful, a number of other companies are waiting in the wings to test more powerful computers for better-quality satellite images of Earth.
It could be the perfect storm as smart technology and advanced computing pair with growth in space travel. If this experiment goes well, we’re one step further to sending people to Mars.