Tomorrow, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is set to launch another batch of cargo and science experiments to the International Space Station, and that shipment will include a supercomputer from Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Called the Spaceborne Computer, the system is a joint project between HPE and NASA to see if a commercial computer can be designed to last in the harsh space environment. If successful, similar computers could be critical tools for future deep-space missions beyond Earth.
The space station’s location in lower Earth orbit makes it an unfriendly place for computers. Because the ISS sits outside the majority of Earth’s protective atmosphere, it’s exposed to more radiation — from solar flares and cosmic rays that originate outside the Solar System. This exposure can degrade technology over time, so computers that go to space have to be physically “hardened” with shielding in order to withstand this higher radiation environment. But this upgrading process takes a lot of time and money, and it adds weight to the computer, according to HPE.
Can a commercial computer last in the harsh space environment?
The Spaceborne Computer is an experiment to see if regular “off-the-shelf” computers can operate in space over long periods of time. The computer is also equipped to deal with radiation exposure differently, relying on software upgrades rather than hardware. It runs on an open-source Linux operating system and is programmed to recognize when a high-radiation event is occurring, for instance. It will then respond by throttling its systems and lowering its operating speed to save power and avoid damage, according to NASA.
The computer supposedly passed 146 “safety tests and certifications” to be approved for space travel by NASA, says HPE. Once it launches to orbit, the computer is supposed to last a year on the ISS. Overall, NASA wants to know just how much the computer will suffer from radiation exposure over time, and if these software “patches” can actually reduce any degradation. The results of the space-bound computer will be compared to an identical computer that HPE is keeping on the ground.
If the experiment works, similar software-hardened computers could be critical for future missions to Mars. Communicating with astronauts on the Red Planet will be a slow process, since a radio signal takes around 20 minutes to travel from Earth to Mars. That means round-trip communications could take upwards of 40 minutes. If Mars astronauts have to do complicated calculations in a hurry, they won’t be able to rely on Earth; they’ll have to use any computers they take with them — and those systems will need to be able to withstand the heightened radiation on the way to Mars.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is slated to take off at 12:31PM ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with the Spaceborne Computer onboard.