Why you can’t take an iPad to Mars, yet

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Space, the final frontier for those who chose to ignore the large portion of the oceans we have yet to explore, but that’s a topic for another time.

At the moment the big talking point is space exploration thanks to firms such as SpaceX making promises that in the not too distant future humans will land on Mars.

But the journey to our red neighbour requires a lot of planning, testing and preparation especially when it comes to the computational power required for a successful mission.

Now, putting a computer into space can be a tricky affair because space is full of nasty radiation and such according to HP Enterprise’s Andrew Wheeler.

“In space there is the concept of hardening electric circuits. In space you deal with some really nasty things like cosmic rays. These are things like protons, heavy ions, x-rays, gamma rays, and alpha particles. These are particles that have enough energy to penetrate a device and foul with the circuitry itself,” explains Wheeler.

“For example a standard DRAM component that’s in your phone or laptop is essentially made with small capacitors that store electrons. These high energy particles can come in and knock those electrons out,” he continues.

What this means is that these high energy particles can mess with the binary code computers use turning ones into zeroes.

“There’s a lot of other nasty stuff these particles can do like lock up circuits completely. Space can really render electronics useless,” says Wheeler.

Now, there are ways to harden circuitry so that these particles don’t have the effect they do but it takes time and costs money.

When the Apollo missions went into space the computing power they had were triple redundant and had a parity-bit to more easily identify errors.

Circuit hardening can also be done physically so that the devices are more impenetrable.

The trouble with current hardening techniques is that by the time electronics reach the launchpad they are already three to four years out of date.

So why then don’t organisations such as NASA remotely control a spacecraft from Earth?

Simply put, the speed of light.

At its closest point to Earth, a message to Mars would take four minutes to arrive, at its furthest point that would take 22 minutes. In the event of an emergency 22 minutes is too big of a risk to take so spacecraft need to be equipped with enough computing power for the crew to solve issues or avoid them altogether and that takes a lot of power.

“A 45 minute round trip is not acceptable so when you go to Mars you have to be self sufficient, and rely on ground control as little as possible” says Wheeler.

So for the last year HP Enterprise has been testing the Spaceborne Super Computer that is floating above us in the International Space Station (ISS) and it boasts a teraflop of computing power.

“As it turns out you don’t need an awful lot of computing power to get to Mars,” explains Wheeler.

“But as I’ve said, going to Mars you need to be self sufficient. That means being able to simulate any situation you come across, land and do anything while you are on Mars,” adds Wheeler.

What HP Enterprise has been doing with its super computer in space is seeing whether hardening could be done by software.

“When we harden with software we can take off-the-shelf technology with us and then rely on software to do all the autonomous recovery, failure analysis and the like,” Wheeler explains.

A replica of the Spaceborne Super Computer.

Hardening via software also allows for electronics to be protected in the event that the Mars mission encounters things we aren’t aware of yet. Wheeler explains that in the year-long journey aboard the ISS, HP Enterprise has learned about storms that can happen in space and using software hardening, electronics can be put into a hibernating state to protect them while the storm passes.

The Spaceborne Super Computer has completed a year of testing in the International Space Station and should return to Earth soon. Once it does HP Enterprise can analyse the data and refine its processes.

The reason for all of this is to allow astronauts to take the latest and best technology with them to Mars and for it to function when they arrive.

This project of HP Enterprise’s could make commercial space travel for everyday folks cheaper and easier as there would be no need to adapt existing electronics for space.

While you can’t take an iPad into space just yet we might soon be able to and if the Mars mission is a success we could be posting selfies from the Red Planet to Instagram thanks to HP Enterprise.

Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz writes news, reviews, and opinion pieces for Hypertext. His interests include SMEs, innovation on the African continent, cybersecurity, blockchain, games, geek culture and YouTube.