In this article
- Dr. Eng Lim Goh kicked off The Economist’s Space Summit as part of a breakfast panel on the challenges facing extended space travel
- The Spaceborne Computer, a joint year-long experiment from HPE and NASA, currently resides aboard the International Space Station
- Initially designed to test a supercomputer's ability to operate under the harsh conditions of space, the Spaceborne Computer will now be opened up to astronauts aboard the ISS looking to run data analyses for space research without assistance from Earth
High performance computing (HPC) has become fundamental to research; unlocking discoveries never imagined before about our planet and beyond.
And now, we’re taking that level of computing above the clouds.
In-Space Supercomputing: Empowering Astronauts to Expand Exploration
As HPE announced, and as I discussed in a panel at The Economist’s Space Summit in New York last week, we are continuing experiments with our Spaceborne Computer on the International Space Station (ISS).
Our first one-year mission of sending the Spaceborne Computer to space was to test the resiliency and performance of an off-the-shelf supercomputer that is “hardened” with smart, self-healing software, in the harsh conditions of space. After proving this approach to be successful, we have decided to now open the supercomputer to astronauts and researchers aboard the ISS, empowering them to take space exploration to a new level. These are the first ever supercomputing capabilities to be made available in orbit. We’re calling this vision: “above-the-cloud services.
With this project, we’re transforming the space station into a data center by allowing space explorers and experimenters to use the Spaceborne Computer for processing data in space instead of transmitting to and from Earth. That’s a significant step. As we learned from our year-long test, connectivity with Earth can be intermittent and “thin,” which makes this transmission inefficient and frustrating for those aboard the ISS.
To address this, most of the computing needs to be processed autonomously, at the edge of the network, where the data is being generated — in space. We need to make smart computers even smarter, as they may at times be the only technological tools astronauts have to rely on. By equipping them with local data processing on board, we’re empowering them with self-sufficiency to navigate mission-critical situations. As we travel farther out to Mars and beyond, it can take up to 22 minutes to transmit data back to Earth. Forty-four minutes is simply too long to wait when a few minutes’ delay can mean the difference between success or failure.
International Space Station: A Testing Ground for Space and Earth Innovation
During the Space Summit breakfast panel, we discussed the challenges technologists and scientists face when pioneering new technologies and research in space — and the valuable learnings we’ve gleaned.
As noted by fellow panelist and our good friend over at NASA David Hornyak, more than half of the space station has been set aside for non-NASA uses. That means academic research institutions, as well as private enterprises like HPE, have a fertile testing ground available to us for developing, testing and honing scientific endeavors that will transform how we live — in space, as well as on Earth. The more third-party organizations take advantage of the unique research microcosm of the ISS, the more it will foster greater innovation in space and in turn, help NASA. I’m pleased that our above-the-cloud services will help open new research potential on the ISS to both earthbound and spaceborne researchers — whether in medical research, climate science, or technology.
Co-panelist Dava Newman, the former NASA Deputy Administrator under President Obama and a renowned MIT professor and expert in aeronautics, astronautics (and not to mention, the inventor of a revolutionary lightweight spacesuit called the BioSuit) reinforced this sentiment when she noted that scientific findings and learnings in space can benefit humans on Earth. She explained that water filtration systems and biomedical advancements in ultrasound that benefit millions of people on Earth, were in fact adapted from experiments in space. “So many things we do up there directly apply to what we’re doing on Earth,” she noted. Interestingly, to develop the life support systems in her BioSuit, Dava and her team tapped the professional diving community for help - and now their technology and engineering designs from this work are being looked into to enhance movement for those with limited motor skills, such as stroke victims and cerebral palsy.
Our work in space can always come to full circle to benefit habitats on Earth. Our continuous work with the Spaceborne Computer is reflective of that, too. Now tried and tested for space, albeit at low Earth orbit, the experiment teaches us how we can innovate more resilient, autonomous technology for unpredictable environments on Earth — or even autonomous vehicles which also grapple with intermittent connectivity. Additional ongoing experiments with the Spaceborne Computer can unlock insights from in-space research and accelerate discoveries to help us better understand, and create solutions for earthbound applications, too.
And this is just an early stage of a new, exciting space frontier.
As I said during the panel, my interest in science and space was spurred by the adventures of Captain Kirk as he guided Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise — earning a chuckle from the audience, and a surprising shoutout from William Shatner, who played the iconic captain. Not only did this undoubtedly make my day, it is gratifying to see how inspiration can come full circle. Imagine how today’s greatest tech innovations are now propelling today’s space adventurers — as we pursue a mission similar to that of Starship Enterprise, which was “to boldly go where no [human] has gone before.”
Indeed, what was once was the domain of science fiction is rapidly becoming a new reality … way up above the clouds.
Watch the full panel here.