Why HPE is sending a supercomputer to the ISS on SpaceX’s next rocket

Hewlett Packard Enterprise is sending a supercomputer to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s next resupply mission for NASA, which is currently set to launch Monday.

Officially named the “Spaceborne Computer,” the Linux-based supercomputer is designed to serve in a one year experiment conducted by NASA and HPE to find out if high performance computing hardware, with no hardware customization or modification, can survive and operate in outer space conditions for a full year – the length of time, not coincidentally, it’ll likely take for a crewed spacecraft to make the trip to Mars.

Typically, computers used on the ISS have to be “hardened,” explained Dr. Mark Fernandez, who led the effort on the HPE side as lead payload engineer. This process involves extensive hardware modifications made to the high-performance computing (HPC) device, which incur a lot of additional cost, time and effort. One unfortunate result of the need for this physical ruggedization process is that HPCs used in space are often generations behind those used on Earth, and that means a lot of advanced computing tasks end up being shuttled off the ISS to Earth, with the results then round-tripped back to astronaut scientists in space.

This works for now, because communication is near-instantaneous between low-Earth orbit, where the ISS resides, and Earth itself. But once you get further out – as far out as Mars, say – communications could take up to 20 minutes between Earth and spaceship staff. If you saw The Martian, you know how significant a delay of that magnitude can be.

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