HPE sends Spaceborne Computer to the ISS

  • HPE’s Spaceborne Computer-2 launched aboard a rocket this week destined for the International Space Station.
  • The improved Spaceborne Computer-2 is based on commercial off-the-shelf equipment albeit with a few improvements.
  • The trip will help HPE test high-performance computing in space including artificial intelligence and machine learning workloads.

As humanity leans so heavily on computers, if we plan to expand our presence into the cosmos, we’re likely going to need computers in space. The trouble is that all that cosmic radiation floating around can cause mayhem with sensitive electronics designed for a kinder operating environment.

In the past, the harshness of space has been accounted for with redundancy. Spacecraft would launch with multiple backups that could be activated to replace failing systems but that’s not exactly cost-effective.

So, firms such as HPE spend a lot of money developing computers that will work in space and testing them in space. This week, HPE launched its Spaceborne Computer-2 to the International Space Station.

The computer was sent to the orbiting lab via a Northrop Grumman Commercial Resupply Services mission, contracted by NASA, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The computer is based on HPE Edgeline and ProLiant servers albeit updated with 130 TB of flash-based storage from KIOXIA. This abundance of storage will allow HPE to test high-performance computing in space including artificial intelligence and machine learning workloads.

The full specs follow below:

  • HPE Edgeline EL4000 (edge-focused single socket with a single GPU)
    • 1 x low wattage x86
    • 1 x low wattage GPU
    • 64 GB of memory total
    • 4 x 1024 GB KIOXIA XG6 M.2 SSDs
    • 1 x 10GbE Ethernet adapter
  • HPE ProLiant DL360 Gen10 server (traditional 2-socket HPC compute node)
    • 2 x low wattage x86 processors 
    • 192 GB of memory total
    • 4 x 960 GB KIOXIA RM6 2.5” SSDs
    • 4 x 30.72 TB KIOXIA PM6 2.5” SSDs
    • 1 x 10Gb Ethernet Adapter
  • Software
    • Red Hat 7.8 Operating System
    • NASA TReK  5.3.1
  • Powered from 28Vdc
  • Cooled by AAA & MTL

To facilitate this, the computer’s operating system has been updated as has the NASA space flight support software and system security.

“After installation of HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 is completed on the space station, the system will be used by researchers to advance innovation and save time. Traditionally, data gathered in space was collected aboard the research outpost and sent to Earth for processing. An onboard supercomputer enables data to be evaluated in low Earth orbit in near-real time, making it possible to achieve a 30,000 times reduction in download size by only transmitting the data output, or insight, to Earth instead, therefore drastically reducing download time,” HPE said in a press release.

Building a computer for space presents some interesting challenges. According to HPE, it’d be impossible for an astronaut to install Spaceborne Computer-2 by following instructions designed for installation on the ground. As such, all operation and maintenance manuals had to be revised to meet NASA’s standards.

In earlier iterations of the Spaceborne Computer, internal wiring wasn’t secured which meant that in space they floated and rubbed against the spinning cooling fans. After a while, this rubbing caused dust that was thankfully caught by filters. The Spaceborne Computer-2’s wiring is thankfully secured.

“The first iteration of HPE Spaceborne Computer, which is retroactively referred to as HPE Spaceborne Computer-1, was one of the most time-constrained projects HPE ever faced. From zero to zero-gravity in 13 months. Ultimately, some components and ideas were abandoned. In response to suggestions from NASA and the crew, our experts optimized HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 and added new features. One of these improvements included adding 10 gigabit Ethernet. And while generally, HPE considers USB ports on data center hardware a vulnerability that should be avoided, the space station is not exactly your typical data center. Since the crew has a need to analyze data frequently, external USB ports were also added to HPE Spaceborne Computer-2,” adds HPE.

With many space firms eyeing the prospect of a commercial space station, progress made in space computing by the likes of HPE will prove all to valuable in future. The International Space Station will be retired in 2031 so if NASA hopes to build another it will surely benefit from better technology and less reliance on ground-based servers and compute power.


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