SpaceX Leverages HPC to Reach Orbit

By George Leopold

January 2, 2015

The commercial revolution in spaceflight is predicated on bringing computing power and Web 2.0 practices to bear in the quest to reduce the cost of lofting payloads to space. All this must be accomplished while demonstrating safety and reliability for the day when commercial space companies begin carrying crews to Earth’s orbit and beyond.

Among the leaders in this endeavor is Space Exploration Technologies Inc., or SpaceX, the first commercial company to send an unmanned cargo ship to the International Space Station (it is also the only commercial company that can return an orbiting spacecraft and its cargo to Earth).

Much of SpaceX’s success hinges on its ability to leverage high-performance computing along with computer-aided engineering tools in the drive to reduce the cost of lifting a pound of payload to orbit. For the commercial space industry, the Holy Grail for launch cost is about $1,000 per pound to orbit. That goal remains elusive. Still, innovators like SpaceX are making headway by moving away from the traditional “arsenal model” of heavily subsidized NASA contractors to agile enterprises that know how to leverage new computing tools along with agile engineering practices.

The remaining question in the dangerous arena of spaceflight is whether computer simulations can replace the time-tested method of blowing up stuff to find out why it broke. Only then can spacecraft carry humans.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has embraced the use of new computing tools to develop everything from reusable rockets to floating launch pads. All are designed with the single-minded goal of reducing the cost of commercial space operations while ensuring crew safety. The upstart space company has yet to fully demonstrate that capability, but it has plans in the works to carry crews to the space station later in the decade under a NASA contract awarded in 2014.

In a video tour of the SpaceX facility in Hawthorne, Calif., Musk noted: “Where ever possible we try to design a [rocket] part in 3-D, to manufacture it in 3-D and then to inspect it in 3-D, so we minimize the number of 2-D to 3-D conversions.”

The company also uses full “hardware in the loop” simulations of first and second stage engines for its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket. “From an avionics, electronics standpoint and from a steering standpoint, the flight computer and avionics think they are flying the vehicle to space,” Musk explained. “Then we verify that the computer has done all the things it’s supposed to do make the rocket get successfully to space.”

Standing in front of the SpaceX server room as the company was ramping up for flights to the space station, Musk is seen with about 500 processors used for applications like computational fluid dynamics, finite element analysis and storage for 3-D solid modeling. The server room has certainly grown as the company has begun launching payloads for several international customers. A launch failure can cost billions of dollars, making realistic launch simulations a must.

Those simulations are followed by “live-fire” engine testing a a SpaceX test facility in Texas before rockets and spacecraft are shipped to Cape Canaveral, Florida, or Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for launch.

Along with sheer computing power, another key tool is computational fluid dynamics used to design next-generation rockets and spacecraft. SpaceX has partnered with vendors like Ansys Inc. in an effort to harness computing power in the design and development process.

Commercial space competition is creating “substantial pressure to drive down the cost technology of putting a pound of [payload] into orbit and incredible pressure on cycle time development,” notes Rob Harwood, Ansys industry director for aerospace and defense. “We all know you don’t get a second chance in space, it has to work first time.”

Ansys is the primary computer-aided engineering tool used by SpaceX since the company needs to investigate multiple types of physics when designing rocket engines and spacecraft. For example, engineers need to understand thermal transients on its Dragon spacecraft that result in stresses on the cargo ship.

According to Andy Sadhwani, SpaceX senior propulsion analyst, Ansys is used to shorten the design analysis cycle, increasing the rate of “design evolution” while reducing test costs. The last area, testing, remains controversial within the space industry. Given that space is an unforgiving environment, some critics argue that stresses on spacecraft can’t be simulated. Rather, hardware needs to be pushed to breaking point to ensure that it won’t fail in space.

The SpaceX Merlin 1D engine is powered by kerosene and liquid oxygen. Ansys provides most of the engine analysis and “size” requirements for engine components. The tool is also used to gather “pre-test predictions” on engine strain and thermal behavior. That data is “pulled from our models and favorably anchored to our hot-fire testing in Texas,” said Bulent Altan, SpaceX avionics engineer and systems integrator.

Bulent Altan, SpaceX avionics engineer and systems integrator, sets up a simulated test firing of second stage rocket engine that will be sent to engineers planning an engine test firing in Texas.
Bulent Altan, SpaceX avionics engineer and systems integrator, sets up a simulated test firing of a second stage rocket engine that will be sent to engineers planning an engine test firing in Texas.

As SpaceX eyes manned flights, it is looking for ways to squeeze more thrust out its Merlin rocket engines. Designers were able to “leverage the link between [computer] models and test data to nail designs on the first or second try,” Sadhwani claimed.

Another issue for metal-bending aerospace companies is easing the inevitable backlog in the machine shop. The ability to use computational fluid dynamics and other simulations tool is being leveraged by SpaceX to reduce the number of test iterations. That in turn has shortened the design analysis cycle so the company can avoid logjams in the machine shop and remain on schedule for its next launch.

Musk’s efforts to transform the way aerospace companies operate have so far worked. What counts in the space business is actually doing what you said you were going to do, as in sending humans to the moon by the end of the 1960s. The big test for SpaceX and the rest commercial space industry will come when humans are strapped into the coaches of a commercially designed and built spacecraft and launched into orbit.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

Organizations Partner to Rescue Petabytes of Data from the Arecibo Observatory

April 21, 2021

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico stood as the world’s largest single-aperture telescope for more than half a century, its grandiosity earning it a turn as a major filming location in the James Bond movie GoldenEy Read more…

MLPerf Issues New Inferencing Results, Adds Power Metrics, Nvidia Wins (Again)

April 21, 2021

MLPerf.org, the young ML benchmarking organization, today issued its third round of inferencing results (MLPerf Inference v1.0) intended to compare how well various systems and accelerators perform inferencing on a suite Read more…

Cerebras Doubles AI Performance with Second-Gen 7nm Wafer Scale Engine

April 20, 2021

Nearly two years since its massive 1.2 trillion transistor Wafer Scale Engine chip debuted at Hot Chips, Cerebras Systems is announcing its second-generation technology (WSE-2), which its says packs twice the performance Read more…

The New Scalability

April 20, 2021

HPC is all about scalability. The most powerful systems. The biggest data sets. The most cores, the most bytes, the most flops, the most bandwidth. HPC scales! Notwithstanding a few recurring arguments over the last twenty years about scaling up versus scaling out, the definition of scalability... Read more…

Supercomputer-Powered Climate Model Makes Startling Sea Level Rise Prediction

April 19, 2021

The climate science community is tasked with striking a difficult balance: inspiring precisely the amount of alarm commensurate to the climate crisis. Make estimates that are too conservative, and the public might not re Read more…

AWS Solution Channel

Research computing with RONIN on AWS

To allow more visibility into and management of Amazon Web Services (AWS) resources and expenses and minimize the cloud skills training required to operate these resources, AWS Partner RONIN created the RONIN research computing platform. Read more…

San Diego Supercomputer Center Opens ‘Expanse’ to Industry Users

April 15, 2021

When San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California San Diego was getting ready to deploy its flagship Expanse supercomputer for the large research community it supports, it also sought to optimize Read more…

MLPerf Issues New Inferencing Results, Adds Power Metrics, Nvidia Wins (Again)

April 21, 2021

MLPerf.org, the young ML benchmarking organization, today issued its third round of inferencing results (MLPerf Inference v1.0) intended to compare how well var Read more…

Cerebras Doubles AI Performance with Second-Gen 7nm Wafer Scale Engine

April 20, 2021

Nearly two years since its massive 1.2 trillion transistor Wafer Scale Engine chip debuted at Hot Chips, Cerebras Systems is announcing its second-generation te Read more…

The New Scalability

April 20, 2021

HPC is all about scalability. The most powerful systems. The biggest data sets. The most cores, the most bytes, the most flops, the most bandwidth. HPC scales! Notwithstanding a few recurring arguments over the last twenty years about scaling up versus scaling out, the definition of scalability... Read more…

San Diego Supercomputer Center Opens ‘Expanse’ to Industry Users

April 15, 2021

When San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California San Diego was getting ready to deploy its flagship Expanse supercomputer for the larg Read more…

GTC21: Dell Building Cloud Native Supercomputers at U Cambridge and Durham

April 14, 2021

In conjunction with GTC21, Dell Technologies today announced new supercomputers at universities across DiRAC (Distributed Research utilizing Advanced Computing) in the UK with plans to explore use of Nvidia BlueField DPU technology. The University of Cambridge will expand... Read more…

The Role and Potential of CPUs in Deep Learning

April 14, 2021

Deep learning (DL) applications have unique architectural characteristics and efficiency requirements. Hence, the choice of computing system has a profound impa Read more…

GTC21: Nvidia Launches cuQuantum; Dips a Toe in Quantum Computing

April 13, 2021

Yesterday Nvidia officially dipped a toe into quantum computing with the launch of cuQuantum SDK, a development platform for simulating quantum circuits on GPU-accelerated systems. As Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang emphasized in his keynote, Nvidia doesn’t plan to build... Read more…

Nvidia Aims Clara Healthcare at Drug Discovery, Imaging via DGX

April 12, 2021

Nvidia Corp. continues to expand its Clara healthcare platform with the addition of computational drug discovery and medical imaging tools based on its DGX A100 platform, related InfiniBand networking and its AGX developer kit. The Clara partnerships announced during... Read more…

Julia Update: Adoption Keeps Climbing; Is It a Python Challenger?

January 13, 2021

The rapid adoption of Julia, the open source, high level programing language with roots at MIT, shows no sign of slowing according to data from Julialang.org. I Read more…

Intel Launches 10nm ‘Ice Lake’ Datacenter CPU with Up to 40 Cores

April 6, 2021

The wait is over. Today Intel officially launched its 10nm datacenter CPU, the third-generation Intel Xeon Scalable processor, codenamed Ice Lake. With up to 40 Read more…

CERN Is Betting Big on Exascale

April 1, 2021

The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) involves 23 countries, 15,000 researchers, billions of dollars a year, and the biggest machine in the worl Read more…

Programming the Soon-to-Be World’s Fastest Supercomputer, Frontier

January 5, 2021

What’s it like designing an app for the world’s fastest supercomputer, set to come online in the United States in 2021? The University of Delaware’s Sunita Chandrasekaran is leading an elite international team in just that task. Chandrasekaran, assistant professor of computer and information sciences, recently was named... Read more…

HPE Launches Storage Line Loaded with IBM’s Spectrum Scale File System

April 6, 2021

HPE today launched a new family of storage solutions bundled with IBM’s Spectrum Scale Erasure Code Edition parallel file system (description below) and featu Read more…

10nm, 7nm, 5nm…. Should the Chip Nanometer Metric Be Replaced?

June 1, 2020

The biggest cool factor in server chips is the nanometer. AMD beating Intel to a CPU built on a 7nm process node* – with 5nm and 3nm on the way – has been i Read more…

Saudi Aramco Unveils Dammam 7, Its New Top Ten Supercomputer

January 21, 2021

By revenue, oil and gas giant Saudi Aramco is one of the largest companies in the world, and it has historically employed commensurate amounts of supercomputing Read more…

Quantum Computer Start-up IonQ Plans IPO via SPAC

March 8, 2021

IonQ, a Maryland-based quantum computing start-up working with ion trap technology, plans to go public via a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) merger a Read more…

Leading Solution Providers

Contributors

Can Deep Learning Replace Numerical Weather Prediction?

March 3, 2021

Numerical weather prediction (NWP) is a mainstay of supercomputing. Some of the first applications of the first supercomputers dealt with climate modeling, and Read more…

Livermore’s El Capitan Supercomputer to Debut HPE ‘Rabbit’ Near Node Local Storage

February 18, 2021

A near node local storage innovation called Rabbit factored heavily into Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s decision to select Cray’s proposal for its CORAL-2 machine, the lab’s first exascale-class supercomputer, El Capitan. Details of this new storage technology were revealed... Read more…

New Deep Learning Algorithm Solves Rubik’s Cube

July 25, 2018

Solving (and attempting to solve) Rubik’s Cube has delighted millions of puzzle lovers since 1974 when the cube was invented by Hungarian sculptor and archite Read more…

African Supercomputing Center Inaugurates ‘Toubkal,’ Most Powerful Supercomputer on the Continent

February 25, 2021

Historically, Africa hasn’t exactly been synonymous with supercomputing. There are only a handful of supercomputers on the continent, with few ranking on the Read more…

AMD Launches Epyc ‘Milan’ with 19 SKUs for HPC, Enterprise and Hyperscale

March 15, 2021

At a virtual launch event held today (Monday), AMD revealed its third-generation Epyc “Milan” CPU lineup: a set of 19 SKUs -- including the flagship 64-core, 280-watt 7763 part --  aimed at HPC, enterprise and cloud workloads. Notably, the third-gen Epyc Milan chips achieve 19 percent... Read more…

The History of Supercomputing vs. COVID-19

March 9, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic poses a greater challenge to the high-performance computing community than any before. HPCwire's coverage of the supercomputing response t Read more…

HPE Names Justin Hotard New HPC Chief as Pete Ungaro Departs

March 2, 2021

HPE CEO Antonio Neri announced today (March 2, 2021) the appointment of Justin Hotard as general manager of HPC, mission critical solutions and labs, effective Read more…

GTC21: Nvidia Launches cuQuantum; Dips a Toe in Quantum Computing

April 13, 2021

Yesterday Nvidia officially dipped a toe into quantum computing with the launch of cuQuantum SDK, a development platform for simulating quantum circuits on GPU-accelerated systems. As Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang emphasized in his keynote, Nvidia doesn’t plan to build... Read more…

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
HPCwire