On Monday, a Falcon 9 rocket will take off from the SpaceX leased shot at NASA to refuel the international station. In its multi-commodity Dragon module, including two Apollo 40 HPE supercomputers. The idea of sending computers that are powerful but also demanding in terms of power and cooling may seem incongruous. NASA scientists who have substantial computational means on the mainland do not really need computing power in orbit. It is above all to prepare for the conquest of Mars.
Apollo computers in orbit, logic?
The Dragon capsule that will be sent Monday to the international orbital station will be loaded with 3 tons of refueling and new scientific experiments for the researchers of the ISS. On the manifesto of this exclusively cargo flight, there are 2 supercomputers provided by the American HPE. If the exact configuration of these two machines has not been published, we know that these are Apollo 40 computers, ie Xeon dual-processor machines that can be equipped with 4 NVidia Tesla GPU chips that confers A good energy ratio at the machine. But if the NASA sends these machines into space, it’s not really to exploit their power. The aim is to validate that such calculators of the COTS type (bought on the shelf) can support operation in space over a relatively long period of time. Usually, satellites and space equipment are equipped with specific electronic components, especially shielded to operate while being exposed to radiation. As a result, the cost of electronic equipment is very high, for lagged performance of several generations of processors.
The computers will be tested in orbit for a whole year
By sending these Apollo 40s into space, NASA will be able to verify in situ the lifetime of these conventional machines in the ISS. These machines are not quite standard because the ISS racks are not the 19-inch racks found in all “land” datacenters. The cabinets of the space station have their own characteristics to which the HPE servers have had to fold. This will be the only concession made on these machines which will make it possible to verify if the exchanges of data between the compute nodes of the machine will not be marred by errors due to solar radiation, in particular. The computers will carry out processing permanently and store 5.4 MB of data each day on flash memory (SSD). The computers may be able to reduce their processing speed if the stellar radiation is too large, in order to reduce the risk of processing errors.
Information on the reliability of COTS computers in space is crucial for a mission to Mars. Due to the delay of exchanges between the Earth and Mars, on the order of twenty minutes, it will be necessary to provide the Martian module with a local computing power to react instantaneously to an unexpected situation.
Named Spaceborn 1 and 2, the two machines will remain in production in the ISS a full year, ie the duration of a round trip to Mars. It will then be known whether the astronauts will be able to operate standard supercomputers or whether it will be necessary to create machines specifically for this flight to Mars, expected for 2030 at the earliest.
Translation : Google Translate
“Hewlett Packard Enterprise Sends Supercomputer into Space to Accelerate Mission to Mars”, HPE press release, 2017, August 11
“High Performance Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) Computer System on the ISS (Spaceborne Computer)”, Nasa release, 2017, August 9