Thursday November 01, 2018

The ISS's Supercomputer is Ready for Service

SpaceX sent an HP supercomputer to the ISS over a year ago, and now, after an extensive testing period, that supercomputer is available for astronauts to use. According to HP, performing calculations onboard the space station instead of on ground-based stations will save precious time and bandwidth. However, HP and NASA also view it as a testbed for future missions, where latency could range from seconds (on the Moon) to minutes (on Mars), and transmission windows and bandwidth could be spotty at best. The supercomputer is based on the aptly named Apollo p40 server, presumably with Nvidia Tesla GPUs and Intel Xeon CPUs, but has been modified with a water-cooling setup for space-based operation. Interestingly, as opposed to the traditional form of hardening used in most space equipment, HP "hardens" this system with special software designed to recover from errors that inevitably come with being bombarded by radiation. HP has full timeline of the system's history here.

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Due to limited computing capabilities in space, many of the calculations that are necessary to complete research projects started in space are still processed on Earth. This approach is feasible for running research on the moon or in low earth orbits (LEO) between 400 and 1,000 miles above the Earth's surface, where communication can be in near real-time with Earth. However, larger communication latencies of up to 20 minutes both to and from Earth can occur when data is captured farther into space and closer to Mars. This reality makes any on-ground space exploration challenging and potentially dangerous if astronauts are faced with mission-critical scenarios that they are unable to solve themselves.