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Cloud ‘data bursts’ from space move astronauts closer to Mars — and improve life on Earth

Susanna Ray

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When Michael Collins peeked out a portal on the Apollo 11’s command module, orbiting the moon alone while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their historic lunar walk below, he saw a blue and white planet with no borders. It struck him that humans would have a better future if political leaders also could see the world that way — as a whole globe — and learn to collaborate. But he wouldn’t be able to share his now-famous musings with folks back home until he set foot on Earth again, in part due to severely limited connectivity between the spaceship and ground control.

 
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HPE’s Spaceborne Computer-2 is about the size of a microwave oven (Photo by NASA)

Software engineers and researchers across companies are working together to change that with a new partnership that’s improving communication and enabling experiments that will propel astronauts further into space while improving the lives of the earthbound as well. It’s all based on a new platform involving a supercomputer the size of a small microwave oven that’s getting linked to the cloud from space.

“I grew up with space on the nightly news, and now we’re back again with a new space race, powered by new technology,” says Christine Kretz, vice president of programs and partnerships at the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory. New, reusable rockets are making space exploration more affordable and opening it up to more players, she says, “and that’s the new space. It’s tearing down rivalries and divisions.”

 

Kretz’s organization has been directed by NASA, through Congress, to manage the U.S. National Laboratory onboard the International Space Station (ISS), and it’s her job to hunt for groups — from universities to startups to tech giants — that will “make the best possible use of technology for this spacecraft that has become a floating laboratory circling the globe.”

 

Removing gravity from the equation has made a huge difference for scientists researching everything from combustion engines to air purification systems to cancer treatments. In its 21 years of human occupancy, the space station has hosted more than 3,000 experiments by more than 4,000 researchers from more than 100 countries.

 

With hundreds more ideas in the works, scientists need solid infrastructure and connection to run and access their experiments. That’s what a new partnership between Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Microsoft aims to provide, with edge computing and the Azure cloud.

 

Until now, research data collected from the space station has been transmitted down in drips and drops because of competing priorities for the limited connectivity available. By the time researchers got their data, it was too late to make any necessary tweaks to the collection process or to react to any surprises that might pop up outside the influence of gravity.

 

That constrained connectivity also can delay communicating critical decisions to the astronauts, who often have to wait for information to reach ground control and be analyzed there and then returned with the necessary insight.

 

That’s hard enough with the space station, which orbits as high as 250 miles above the earth. But the moon is almost a thousand times further than that. And at its farthest orbiting position, Mars is a million times that distance. So missions further into outer space will need stronger computing power at the astronauts’ fingertips and a better pipeline for sharing information.

 

HPE was already designing supercomputers for NASA to use for the heavy computing required to plan missions. So the company took one of the hundreds of high-performance computing servers that comprise a supercomputer, made sure it could fit in a rocket, and then tested it to see if it could survive the shaking and rattling of a launch, be installed by untrained personnel, and function in space, where stray cosmic rays can flip a computer’s 1s into 0s or vice versa and wreak havoc on the system.

It worked.

 

And now the second iteration — Spaceborne Computer-2, sent up to the ISS in February — incorporates the proven approach of the first mission, with a significantly more advanced system that’s purposely engineered for harsh environments and for processing artificial intelligence and analytics, says Mark Fernandez, HPE’s principal investigator for the project.

 

Spaceborne Computer-2 is powerful enough to do the work of analyzing data at the source of collection — right there in space — with a process called edge computing. It’s as if your hand normally sent information to your brain and had to wait for analysis and response before giving the signal to pull back from a hot stove, and then it suddenly got the ability to analyze the temperature right at the fingertip itself and decide to immediately recoil from the heat.

 

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