HPE Ships Supercomputer to Space Station, Final Destination Mars

By Tiffany Trader

August 14, 2017

With a manned mission to Mars on the horizon, the demand for space-based supercomputing is at hand. Today HPE and NASA sent the first off-the-shelf HPC system into space aboard the SpaceX Dragon Spacecraft to explore if such a system, equipped with purpose-built software from HPE, can operate successfully under harsh environmental conditions that include radiation, solar flares, and unstable electrical power.

Currently ruggedizing space-bound computers is a years-long process, so that by the time they blast off they are three to four generations behind the current state of the art. HPE has designed its new system software to mitigate environmentally induced errors using real-time adaptive throttling techniques. If successful, it would mean that space travelers need not go through the extensive hardening process for their computers and would benefit from the latest technologies.

After this morning’s launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (Merritt Island, Florida), the Spaceborne Computer is headed to the International Space Station (ISS) for one year, which is about how long it takes to get to Mars.

“Our vision is to have a general purpose HPC supercomputer on board the space craft,” said Dr. Mark Fernandez, leading payload engineer for the project. “Today, all of the experiments must send the data to earth over the precious network bandwidth and this opens up the opportunity to what we’ve been talking a lot about lately, which is bring the compute to the data rather than bring the data to the compute.”

As one considers the latency and bandwidth issues of space travel, the advantage of on-board HPC is clear. The average round trip signal as you get close to Mars is 26 minutes. With this delay, it’s hard to have a conversation over this network much less carry out complex computational tasks. “When you need on the spot computation, for simulation, analytics, artificial intelligence, the answers tends to get a bit too long to come by if you rely on earth so more and more as you travel further and further out you need to carry more compute power with you – this is our belief,” said Dr. Eng Lim Goh, VP, Chief Technology Officer of SGI at HPE and one of the inventors of the approach.

Ultimately HPE is positioning itself to provide its memory-based The Machine supercomputer for Mars exploration.

Sending people to Mars opens up enormous computing demands. They will need to be “guided by a computer capable of performing extraordinary tasks,” writes Kirk Bresniker, Chief Architect, Hewlett Packard labs. These include:

  • Monitoring onboard systems the way a smart city would monitor itself—anticipating and addressing problems before they threaten the mission.
  • Tracking minute-by-minute changes in astronaut health—monitoring vitals and personalizing treatments to fit the exact need in the exact moment.
  • Coordinating every terrestrial, deep space, Martian orbital and rover sensor available, so crew and craft can react to changing conditions in real time.
  • And, perhaps most importantly… combining these data sets to find the hidden correlations that can keep a mission and crew alive.

“Memory-Driven Computing will help us efficiently and effectively tackle the big data challenges of our day, and make it possible for us to—one day—send humans to Mars,” asserts Goh. “But even if we expect Memory-Driven Computing to become the standard for supercomputing in space we need to start somewhere.”

To that end, the phase one Spaceborne Computer includes two x86 HPE Apollo 40-class two-socket systems, powered by Broadwell processors. These are the latest generation Xeons at the point the configuration was frozen by NASA in March ahead of shipment.

The InfiniBand-connected Linux cluster will be housed in a standard NASA dimension locker, equipped with standard Ethernet cables, standard 110 volt AC connectors and NASA-approved cooling technology. The rack design means the system can be easily swapped out for an upgraded model. No modifications were made to the main components, but HPE created a custom water-cooled enclosure that taps into a cooling loop on the space station, leveraging the free ambient cooling of space.

During the year spent circling Earth’s orbit, the computer will run three HPC benchmarks, each of which targets a different kind of computational workload: the compute and power-hungry Linpack, the data intensive HPCG and a benchmark suite from NASA, the NAS parallel benchmark.

“We selected these for relevance, to be as realistic as possible for NASA and space related work,” said Goh.

HPE designed the entire experiment so that testing can run autonomously. “It doesn’t require the astronauts to be system engineers,” said Goh. “They just need to plug the system in and turn it on and the experiments will run automatically.”

The tests will generate approximately 5 megabytes of data per day that will be sent to HPE for analysis. There’s also the capability for an uplink that would give cleared HPE team members limited access to the system, but the plan is to run autonomously other than the regular downloads of data, which will be compared with a control machine in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.

Through its SGI acquisition, HPE has a relationship with NASA that extends back 30 years. The Spaceborne Computer “Apollo 40” compute nodes are the same class as those used in the NASA’s flagship Pleiades supercomputer, an SGI ICE X machine that is ranked at number 15 on the current Top500 list.

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