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Meet the computer that must survive ‘the shake, rattle, and roll’ of a space launch

March 10, 2021, 11:00 PM UTC

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In the coming weeks, International Space Station (ISS) astronauts will boot up a new computer built to survive harsh conditions. And space definitely qualifies as harsh.

First, the computer must withstand the violent shaking during launch aboard a rocket blasting off at 25,000 miles per hour. Next, after reaching the space station, it must tolerate zero-gravity and radiation that can be 100 times as high in space as on Earth.

The new machine, Spaceborne Computer-2, launched on Feb. 20 aboard an uncrewed cargo craft with tons of other space equipment. After the device is installed, the astronauts don’t have to do anything. It’s supposed to work autonomously or be controlled from Earth during its planned two- to three-year deployment.

The arrival of the latest computer follows the successful trial run of the Spaceborne Computer-1, which was installed on the space station in 2017 and operated for 658 days, far longer than the sole year for which it had been planned.

Both computers, manufactured by Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), are off-the-shelf and specifically designed to survive in harsh environments. Those environments, however, are usually places like offshore oil rigs, and not everyone was sure they could handle the more intense rigors of space—or even the trip to the ISS.

“There were so many people who didn’t think it would survive the shake, rattle, and roll of launch,” says Mark Fernandez, HPE’s lead engineer for the Spaceborne Computer project.

The latest computer, which is the size of a few carry-on suitcases, has the power of 30 to 40 laptops. It weighs about the same as “one NFL player or about an average-sized panda,” according to Fernandez.

The only customization to the machine was to make it able to handle the increased radiation in space, which can cause electronics to malfunction. Fernandez says they added software that monitors the computer for any problems that pop up and lets his team remotely fix most anything.

The HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 will be used on the International Space Station.
Courtesy of HPE/Andrew Samplawski Photography ©2020

One lesson learned from the original machine was that zero gravity can cause unexpected problems. Spaceborne Computer-1’s cooling fan wires rubbed against other components within the device, causing some wear that could eventually have led to failure. So wires in Spaceborne-2 were fastened to avoid any problems.

Among the goals of Spaceborne Computer-2 is to transform how the huge amounts of data collected in space are crunched. Life aboard the ISS depends on that data, which, until the Spaceborne Computer project, was sent to be processed on Earth through the equivalent of a satellite data connection—albeit one that is faster than most U.S. home Internet speeds.

Previously, scientists conducting experiments on the ISS must wait hours or even weeks to get their results. Data that is deemed more critical, like communication with the astronauts, is prioritized.

With Spaceborne Computer-2, astronauts have enough computing power to process data on board. The computer also has some downloaded Microsoft software that can analyze the data collected.

As a result, only experiment results and other key information needs to be sent back to Earth, reducing the wait time to minutes, in some cases. Additionally, outside researchers can more easily request access to the space station’s computer to run their experiments; a dozen researchers have already asked to do so.

“We can compute faster than we can transfer,” Fernandez says.

One project using Spaceborne Computer-2 involves taking DNA sequences from microbes and analyzing them. The DNA sequence files are massive, and crunching them aboard will reduce the wait for results “from months to minutes,” according to Fernandez. Quickly running DNA-based experiments could one day help doctors diagnose illnesses or analyze microbes to determine whether they pose a health threat.

This sort of quick processing will be essential if and when humans explore deeper into space. Data to and from Mars, for example, takes 24 minutes to travel each way, too long for urgent matters. Having a computer aboard a spacecraft that can crunch data will be critical for snap decisions and free up time for astronauts to do other things. The goal is to automate many tasks and only have humans involved if something goes awry, much like how HPE’s team is monitoring Spaceborne Computer-2.

Says Fernandez: “Offloading the things that they manually do now will help the mission to Mars,” which NASA is planning for as early as the 2030s.

A new frontier for off-the-shelf tech

Typically, devices that are to be used on the ISS go through many development and testing cycles on Earth to ensure they’ll work properly in space, a process that can take years. Sending the Spaceborne Computer-1, and then its successor, up with merely a few software tweaks but no additional testing, is a first for the ISS.

It could lead to more off-the-shelf technology being used in space. It could also mean that newer and cheaper technology could be used aboard the ISS, allowing for new types of research that can be completed faster.

“It’s a new approach,” says Michael S. Roberts, the interim chief scientist for the ISS National Lab. “This capability is going to be critical.”

Machines like HPE’s are expected to be the next frontier in computing on Earth, too. Nearly 50 billion Internet-connected devices are expected in 2025, which could overwhelm the far-off cloud data centers they’re linked to, according to Blesson Varghese, an associate professor at Queen’s University in Belfast.

Processing some data closer to where it is created would help ensure that all these devices operate with fewer hiccups. For some uses, in which lives are at stake, as in driverless cars or robots working in close quarters with humans, this technology is considered essential.

“An autonomous car could not afford to send something to the cloud, get it processed, and then react,” Varghese says.

Devices that can do this sort of on-the-spot processing are being introduced on Earth, but the technology is still very much in its infancy. Work done in space to stress-test it could speed up its adoption for terrestrial uses.

“The conceptual problems are the same as [on] Earth,” Varghese says. “The research community is looking for novel applications for testing, and space is one.”