HPE, NASA Team for Spaceborne Computer

August 14, 2017

High Performance Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) Computer System on the ISS (Spaceborne Computer)

On August 14, 2017, the SpaceX CRS-12 rocket, developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, intends to launch from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, sending its Dragon Spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) National Lab. Aboard the Dragon is a HPE supercomputer.

This supercomputer, called the Spaceborne Computer, is part of a year-long experiment conducted by HPE and NASA to run a high performance commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computer system in space, which has never been done before. The goal is for the system to operate seamlessly in the harsh conditions of space for one year – roughly the amount of time it will take to travel to Mars.

Many of the calculations needed for space research projects are still done on Earth due to the limited computing capabilities in space, which creates a challenge when transmitting data to and from space. While this approach works for space exploration on the moon or in low Earth orbit (LEO) when astronauts can be in near real-time communication with Earth, once they travel farther out and closer to Mars, they will experience larger communication latencies. This could mean it would take up to 20 minutes for communications to reach Earth and then another 20 minutes for responses to reach astronauts. Such a long communication lag would make any on-the-ground exploration challenging and potentially dangerous if astronauts are met with any mission critical scenarios that they’re not able to solve themselves.

A mission to Mars will require sophisticated onboard computing resources that are capable of extended periods of uptime. To meet these requirements, we need to improve technology’s viability in space in order to better ensure mission success. By sending a supercomputer to space, HPE is taking the first step in that direction. 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.

When the United States successfully put two men on the moon, it captivated the world and inspired technological advancements from the microchip to memory foam. The mission to Mars is the next opportunity to propel technological innovation into the next frontier. The Spaceborne Computer experiment will not only show us what needs to be done to advance computing in space, it will also spark discoveries for how to improve high performance computing (HPC) on Earth and potentially have a ripple effect in other areas of technology innovation.

The Spaceborne Computer includes the HPE Apollo 40 class systems with a high speed HPC interconnect running an open-source Linux operating system. Though there are no hardware modifications to these components, we created a unique water-cooled enclosure for the hardware and developed purpose-built system software to address the environmental constraints and reliability requirements of supercomputing in space. Generally, in order for NASA to approve computers for space, the equipment needs to be “ruggedized” – or hardened to withstand the conditions in space. Think radiation, solar flares, subatomic particles, micrometeoroids, unstable electrical power, irregular cooling. This physical hardening takes time, money and adds weight, so HPE took a different approach to “harden” the systems with software. HPE’s system software will manage real time throttling of the computer systems based on current conditions and can mitigate environmentally induced errors. Even without traditional ruggedizing, the system still passed at least 146 safety tests and certifications in order to be NASA-approved for space.

A Look Back on 30 Years in Space

Through the SGI acquisition, Hewlett Packard Enterprise has a longstanding, 30-year relationship with NASA. This relationship started the co-development of the world's first IRIX single-system image in 1998. Along the way, we’ve achieved great milestones, including the co-development of one of the largest and fastest supercomputers, Columbia, a 10,240-processor supercluster that was named the second fastest supercomputer in the world on the 2004 Top500 list. Today, the Spaceborne Computer contains compute nodes of the same class as NASA’s premier supercomputer, Pleiades, currently ranked #9 in the world.

Experiment Details
OpNom: Spaceborne Computer

Principal Investigator(s)
Eng Lim Goh, Ph.D., Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Milpitas, CA, United States

David H. Petersen, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Chippewa Falls, WI, United States

Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Milpitas, CA, United States

Sponsoring Space Agency
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Sponsoring Organization
Technology Demonstration Office (TDO)

Research Benefits
Space Exploration

ISS Expedition Duration
April 2017 - September 2017

Research Overview

•Computer and data intensive applications are run on the Spaceborne Computer systems.

•The power consumption is monitored and power usage is dynamically tuned during these runs.

•The effects of radiation on the systems when running performance applications are determined concurrently with detecting/analyzing/adapting to data, quickpath interconnectTM (QPI) internal and FDR external errors.


The research objectives of the Spaceborne Computer include a year-long experiment of operating high performance commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computer systems on the ISS with its changing radiation climate. During high radiation events, the electrical power consumption and, therefore, the operating speeds of the computer systems are lowered in an attempt to determine if such systems can still operate correctly. Additionally, this is a long duration experiment, studying the practicality of running and managing COTS high performance computer systems in orbit from several months to one year. In summary, the objectives are: 1) run compute and data intensive applications in a changing radiation climate, 2) monitor power consumption and dynamically tune the power consumed, and 3) determine effects of solar radiation on the systems while running. In order to achieve these objectives, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) proposes a total of four identical high performance COTS computer systems. Two of the systems are installed aboard the ISS in a side-by-side EXPRESS locker within an ISS EXPRESS Rack. These two systems with the required networking are integrated at the HPE facility and turned over to the ISS Cargo Mission Contract (CMC) as required.


Space Applications
Radiation-resistant computers improve the reliability of computational resources in space. Radiation is likely to have a number of unanticipated effects on complex computer systems. This experiment helps identify critical failure points in electronic systems, as well as potential software ‘patches’ that can prevent them.

Earth Applications
Radiation events (solar flares) can also pose risks to computing resources on Earth. Computing devices are increasingly used in an expanding range of outdoor applications such as cellular towers and traffic monitoring systems. This research helps identify dynamic software solutions that minimize radiation risk to any unprotected computing resource.

Operational Requirements and Protocols

In order to achieve these objectives, HPE proposes a total of four identical high performance COTS computer systems. Two of the systems are installed aboard the ISS in a side-by-side payload developer designed locker in an ISS EXPRESS Rack locker location. These two systems with the required networking are integrated at the HPE facility and turned over to the ISS Cargo Mission Contract (CMC) as required. The other two systems are earth-based and act as the control group for the entire experiment. These identical and duplicate systems are housed within, operated, and monitored by HPE’s Engineering Department. Not only do two systems provide redundancy, but also, one of each pair remains in a maximum and steady power/performance state for the duration of the experiment, while the other’s performance is dynamically changed by raising and lowering the electrical power settings.

The systems have the following proposed names: Spaceborne Computer #1 (SBC-1) and Spaceborne Computer #2 (SBC-2); Earth-based Computer #1 (EBC-1) and Earth-based Computer #2 (EBC-2). Data networking is required to monitor the running applications and their performance and to dynamically control the electrical power of the systems. HPE proposes the use of the Ku Band Internet Protocol (IP) services (also known as Ku Forward services). HPE anticipates using the approved Telescience Resource Kit (TReK) to monitor and control the two high performance COTS computer systems on the ISS. However, until HPE has access to TReK and can test the capabilities, this remains a TBD. The systems are expected to generate about 5.4 MB of uncompressed ASCII files per day, and this is verified during testing according to the “Software Development and Testing” schedule. These files are stored onboard the systems on internal solid state disks. It is desirable to download these files daily for safekeeping and analysis.

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