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Place your bets: How long will 1TFLOPS HPE box last in space without proper rad hardening

NASA about to find out, thanks to SpaceX launch to ISS

By Katyanna Quach, 12 Aug 2017

SpaceX and HPE will put a modest little supercomputer into space next week to test how computer systems operate in extreme conditions.

On Monday, August 14, HPE’s Spaceborne Computer will blast off to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX CRS-12 rocket. It’s part of an experiment to examine if commercial off-the-shelf computers can survive a year in space, what with all the radiation, vibrations and so on, something that will be useful to know for the long trip to Mars.

The Spaceborne Computer isn’t exactly a top-of-the-range supercomputer, but it will be the most advanced machine to be sent to space. It can hit about one teraflop in terms of performance, we're told, will mostly run benchmarking software on Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and will be built out of two HPE Apollo Intel x86 servers with a 56Gbps interconnect. Our sister site, The Next Platform, has more details on the hardware, here.

The benchmark figures from the Spaceborne Computer will analyzed to see how it degrades over time; the results will be compared to the same benchmarks running on an identical computer in a laboratory on Earth. The differences between these two sets of numbers will give scientists an idea of the practical effects life in orbit has on commercially available computer equipment, as opposed to highly expensive specialized systems built solely for withstanding spaceflight.

When the in-orbit machine detects increasing levels of radiation, it will try to lower its operating speeds, or power down, to avoid unrecoverable data corruption, we're told. Semiconductor electronics are vulnerable to ionizing radiation, like that found in space, as it causes bits to randomly flip thus changing information and crashing programs.

Sending a computer to space is, therefore, tricky. To make sure it stands a good chance of survival, it has to be ruggedized to survive the bumps and shakes of flight, and radiation hardened to run as expected, all of which costs a lot of money. No modifications have been made to this space-bound HPE hardware, though – it is straight out of the factory – however HPE did create a “water-cooled enclosure” that acts as a buffer between the computer and the bit-flipping subatomic particles whizzing about the universe.

The International Space Station is the testbed for studying the possibilities of long-haul human spaceflight. All experiments are geared to understanding the potential challenges faced when sending humans into space.

The further out we travel, the more computing power we need to bring with us because we can't rely on systems back on Earth making decisions. The communications latency and bandwidth between, say, Mars and our home world would make remote connections absolutely painful to use. Ruggedizing and rad-hardening hardware is pretty expensive, hence why boffins want to find out how harsh space will really will be for off-the-shelf and relatively cheap computers.

The HPE hardware successfully passed the 146 or so safety requirements to be approved by NASA for launch. The IT titan hopes to beam more complex computers to the ISS in the future.

“Future phases of this experiment will eventually involve sending other new technologies and advanced computing systems, like Memory-Driven Computing, to the ISS once we learn more about how the Spaceborne Computer reacts in space,” HPE said in a blog post on Friday. ®

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