HPE, NASA to launch a supercomputer into space

The year-long experiment will test a supercomputer's ability to function in space, with the aim of sending one to Mars.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer on

The Spaceborne Computer, a joint experiment between NASA and HPE, will travel to the International Space Station (seen here).

Hewlett Packard Enterprise is teaming up with NASA to launch a supercomputer into space on Monday, with the ultimate aim of building computing resources that could serve on board a mission to Mars.

The supercomputer, called the Spaceborne Computer, will launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on board the SpaceX CRS-12 rocket, developed by Elon Musk's SpaceX. The rocket will send the SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft -- and the supercomputer along with it -- to the International Space Station (ISS) National Lab.

The goal of the joint experiment is to have the Spaceborne Computer operate smoothly in space for on year, which is roughly how long it would take to travel to Mars.

Given the current constraints on computing in space, many calculations needed for space research are performed on Earth. For astronauts on Mars, that could mean waiting as long as 40 minutes for communications to reach Earch and back.

"Such a long communication lag would make any on-the-ground exploration challenging and potentially dangerous if astronauts are met with any mission critical scenarios that they're not able to solve themselves," Alain Andreoli, SVP and GM of HPE's data center infrastructure group, wrote in a blog post. "A mission to Mars will require sophisticated onboard computing resources that are capable of extended periods of uptime."

Andreoli also said the experiment will "spark discoveries for how to improve high performance computing (HPC) on Earth and potentially have a ripple effect in other areas of technology innovation."

The Spaceborne Computer doesn't include any hardware modifications. It includes the HPE Apollo 40 class systems with a high speed HPC interconnect running an open-source Linux operating system.

A high-performance commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computer system has never run in space before. NASA typically only approves computers for space once they've been "ruggedized" to withstand variables like radiation, solar flares, micrometeoroids, unstable electrical power and irregular cooling.

However, instead of adding costly and bulky hardware modifications, HPE "hardened" the systems with purpose-built software. The software can manage real-time throttling of the computer systems to respond to radiation events and other external conditions. The system does also include a unique water-cooled enclosure for the hardware.

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