Space exploration is one of the most exciting and multifaceted fields of research. From promoting scientific education and creating jobs, to expanding environmental studies and unraveling the mysteries of the universe, investigating the reaches of space holds the key to advancing human knowledge and human lives.
NASA is spearheading the effort “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research.” To achieve this, NASA utilizes leading-edge technologies to collect, analyze, and transmit vast quantities of data and rapidly derive intelligent insights. High performance computing (HPC) capabilities are essential to executing these critical workloads, and last year, NASA teamed up with leading developer Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) to launch the first HPC system into space.
HPE is working closely with NASA in a year-long experiment to deploy and operate a fully-functional HPC machine aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The mission—known as Spaceborne Computer—is designed to revolutionize space exploration, drive scientific and technological advancements, and accelerate innovation for the benefit of mankind. Spaceborne Computer was launched to the ISS on August 14th, 2017 and powered up one month later on September 14th. As of April 9th, the first supercomputer in space has been operating successfully for 207 days and orbiting for a total of 238 days—that’s 3,460 revolutions around the Earth. And the achievements don’t stop there.
Reaching new frontiers of innovation
Since becoming operational, Spaceborne Computer has consistently delivered one trillion calculations per second (or one teraflop of performance). This groundbreaking accomplishment earned HPE two esteemed awards at SuperComputing 2017, including the Hyperion Research “HPC Innovation Excellence Award” as well as the HPCwire Editors’ Choice Award for “Top Supercomputing Achievement.”
Since then, HPE and NASA have shared their progress at a number of HPC and academic events, kindling a growing intrigue in Spaceborne Computer. These activities range from talks with inquisitive fourth-grade classrooms and university aeronautical engineering clubs, to Dr. Eng Lim Goh’s session at HPE Discover Madrid, and the 2018 Mobile World Congress. Spaceborne Computer is fueling a new and undeniable passion for space research. In fact, one enthusiast shared his tattoo of the ISS with experts at the Spaceborne Computer area of an HPE event booth—and they photographed him and his ISS tattoo alongside the Spaceborne Computer system dashboard. The mission is even embracing the holiday spirit (as seen below), transforming the ISS emblem into Santa Claus with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on Christmas Eve.
Source: HPE, December 2017
Then on Pi Day, an annual celebration of mathematics which takes place on March 14th, Spaceborne Computer completed its eight month in orbit and seventh successful month in operation. In honor of the holiday (and with NASA’s permission), the Spaceborne Computer team at HPE computed pi in space.
Source: HPE, March 2018
The team also ran a fresh Multi-Node High Performance LINPACK (HPL) to compare with the original benchmark results. This benchmark is typically used to stress-test a new system upon delivery before it goes into production. In this case, the new HPL results mirrored the original results from September 14th. The benchmark indicates a fundamental success for Spaceborne Computer, confirming over half a year of reliable HPC performance—from cores, to CPUs, to memory, to optical interconnect, to software—every component needed for scientific computation.
Spaceborne Computer has met and also exceeded the expectations of industry leaders as well as the hopes of NASA and HPE teams. As the software-hardened machine tackles expected and unexpected variables, the experiment proves to be a wild success:
- HPE’s software-hardening process meets NASA’s standards to protect the hardware from extreme temperatures, radiation, and other environmental factors.
- The machine successfully powers up in space and assumes standard operation.
- Spaceborne Computer passes endurance tests and continuously functions at one teraflop, like its twin system in Chippewa Falls.
- Over half a year later, the machine is still running mathematical computations rapidly and accurately.
In addition to these goals, Spaceborne Computer has adeptly handled scheduled and unscheduled interruptions—both due to electrical issues aboard the ISS. In one circumstance, a NASA inverter had failed—a component that converts solar panel direct current electricity into 110-volt AC used by the HPE system. Per safety protocol, NASA required the electricity to be turned off while the inverter was replaced. This “scheduled interrupt” allowed HPE to do an orderly shutdown of the machine, and once electricity was restored, the system went straight back into production. On a separate occasion, Spaceborne Computer encountered an “unscheduled interrupt” when a smoke detector sounded on the ISS, signaling an immediate shutdown to prevent a potential electrical fire. Spaceborne Computer had been up and running continuously until the system suddenly lost power. Although it was not prepared for the hard shutdown, HPE rebooted the system once the activity was determined a false alarm—and like clockwork, the machine logged on, ran health checks, and resumed normal production.
During the experiment, HPE received one warning email indicating the hardware was at risk of overheating. When the team went in to investigate, they found that the issue was not with Spaceborne Computer, but with its counterpart in Chippewa Falls. While maintenance was repairing the factory’s AC, the temperature increased, causing the software to alert HPE to an unsafe operating environment.
What’s next for supercomputing in space
After several months in operation, the HPE system is “running like a dream,” according to Project Lead Dr. Mark Fernandez. “Boring is good. Spaceborne is passing its space test with flying colors, and that’s vitally important because our mission is to operate seamlessly in the harsh conditions of space for one year—which is roughly the amount of time it will take to travel to Mars.”
Today, the HPE team is discussing the next steps for Spaceborne Computer. While some hardware engineers have suggested sending the hardware for standard failure analysis, others want to take an in-depth look at the system to explore how software can prevent these instances in the future. The key objectives are to expand the success of anticipatory failure modes in addition to making simple hardware modifications to enhance the reliability and performance of all HPC solutions, enabling HPE to create a new industry standard.
Moving forward, HPE and NASA hope to empower other space explorers with a new breed of compute at the intelligent edge. HPE hopes to expand its collaboration with NASA to drive innovation in three critical areas. Foremost, image and signal processing is an important area for exploration, allowing researchers to collect images and signals from space and process them on Earth. However, this is a time-consuming and bandwidth-intensive process. HPE is endeavoring to process this information onboard the ISS in order to transmit only relevant data to Earth, therefore saving valuable HPC resources and accelerating insight. Onboard artificial intelligence capabilities will allow spaceborne systems to quickly determine images of interest, bringing intelligence right to the edge to further man’s knowledge of space. Based on these insights, scientific engineers can drive precision improvements to the technologies required for entry, descent, and landing (EDL). These technologies enable scientists to study atmospheric pressure, weather patterns, and other factors that can pose major challenges to EDL procedures—this is especially critical when traveling places like Mars, 130 million miles away.
To learn more about how Spaceborne Computer is driving progress in scientific discovery and technological advancement, I invite you to visit me on Twitter at @Bill_Mannel. You can also visit @HPE_HPC for the latest developments in HPC innovation. And check out @NASA and @Space_Station for up-to-the-minute news and updates in space exploration.