​The ISS just got its own Linux supercomputer

The International Space Station will host a test of computer hardware that's vital for any future missions to Mars.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director
3DSculptor, Getty Images/iStockphoto

A year-long project to determine how high-performance computers can perform in space has just cleared a major hurdle -- successfully booting up on the International Space Station (ISS).

This experiment conducted by Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and NASA aims to run a commercial off-the-shelf high-performance computer in the harsh conditions of space for one year -- roughly the amount of time it will take to travel to Mars.

Many of the calculations needed for space research projects are still done on Earth due to the limited computing capabilities in space, but this in turn create causes a problem in terms of transmitting data to and from a spaceship. While this approach works for space exploration on the moon or in low Earth orbit, when astronauts can be in almost real-time communication with Earth, the further they go towards Mars, the greater the communication latencies.

This means it could take 20 minutes for data to travel from a spacecraft back to Earth -- and then another 20 minutes for a response to reach the astronauts.

"A mission to Mars will require sophisticated onboard computing resources that are capable of extended periods of uptime. To meet these requirements, we need to improve technology's viability in space in order to better ensure mission success", said HPE when the project launched earlier this year.

The hardware, which the company dubs the 'Spaceborne Computer', is an Apollo 40 server with a high-speed HPC interconnect running Linux. It runs in a water-cooled enclosure and HPE has developed additional software to address the environmental constraints and reliability requirements of supercomputing in space.

Rather than ruggedizing the device to cope with the conditions in space and risks like radiation, solar flares, subatomic particles, micrometeoroids and unstable electrical power, HPE plans to use system software to manage real-time throttling of the computer's systems based on conditions, and to mitigate environmentally induced errors.

Last week -- a month after the computer arrived at the ISS on a SpaceX CRS-12 rocket launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida -- the astronauts switched the server on.

To test the speed of the system in relation to its Earth-based counterparts, HPE and NASA engineering teams conducted a number of benchmarking tests.

Mark Fernandez, HPE's Americas HPC Technology Officer explained how the test went: "Finally, the moment we've all been waiting for. I am ready to launch the multi-node High Performance LINPACK (HPL) benchmark test. This test will determine how many multiplications per second the system can produce. If all goes well, we'll run the High Performance Conjugate Gradients (HPCG), which was designed to complement the HPL benchmark."

"We launch the HPL run and wait patiently. We're hoping for the highest number (most multiplications) they can get, so I wouldn't dare check the progress for about 15 minutes or so for fear of slowing anything down. The HPL run is finally complete and not only are the results valid, but the Spaceborne Computer achieves over one trillion calculations per second, also known as one teraFLOP, which is up to 30 times faster than a laptop. We don't hesitate to begin the HPCG. It verifies the results."

HPE said this made the device the first high-performance commercial off-the-shelf computer system to run one teraFLOP at the ISS. Other new technologies will be sent to the ISS once it's clearer how this initial hardware copes with space.

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