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4 cool ways tech firms are leveraging the International Space Station

Will the next wave of Silicon Valley innovations be space-driven? Panelists at the recent International Space Station R&D conference think so.

3D printers. An on-board supercomputer. Small satellites. Servers tuned for harsh conditions. A number of tech firms have jumped on the opportunity to send their products into space. It’s a remarkable way to see how the hardware performs and identify the challenges that remain. During a panel discussion at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in San Francisco, some of these vendors explained what they’re doing on the ISS and where the research may lead.

Print what you need

The name says it all. Made in Space specializes in manufacturing in space and uses the ISS for projects like deployment of the world’s first zero-gravity 3D printer. At this early phase, the 3D printer isn’t making anything the astronauts rely on, but rather it’s being tested to see how 3D printing performs for potential use in other missions. The initial printouts were basic, including a "calibration coupon" that creates a test object to make sure the printer is working. But, in a first for 3D printing, the design code for one of the outputs—a ratchet—was uplinked to the space station from earth.

ISS conference

Panelists (left to right): Loren Grush, science reporter, The Verge; Andrew Rush, president and CEO, Made In Space; Nick Allain, director of branding, Spire Global; Dr. Mark Fernandez, Spaceborne computer payload developer, Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Image credit: David Needle

To date, all the objects printed on the ISS appear to have printed correctly, says Andrew Rush, CEO of Made In Space. A further analysis will be done after their return when the printed objects are compared with the same objects printed on terra firma, to see if there are any differences in their makeup.

Having 3D printing on the space station is going to give astronauts the tools they need to survive and thrive in space, Rush said. “We started with manufacturing as a foundational technology, as a meta-tool to let us create what we need,” he said. “It’s like the American West, when the settlers took tools with them to build the towns they would eventually live in.”

Supercomputer in space

HPE had a specific reason for putting its Spaceborne supercomputer on the ISS: A customer asked it to. NASA Ames, the Silicon Valley-based NASA research center, uses high-performance SGI supercomputers from HPE.

“NASA Ames told us that for planning a mission to Mars, they want to take computer resources with them and have a high-performance computer on board for the year or more it will take to get there,” explained Dr. Mark Fernandez, HPE Spaceborne computer payload developer.

“We took a standard server that’s used in data centers—no hardening or other special preparations—and we launched it last August,” Fernandez said. “The majority of the community we heard from didn’t think the server would function or last as long as it has, but it’s still going.”

There have been a few scary moments. In one case, a fire alarm was accidentally triggered on the ISS, which caused the Spaceborne to automatically shut down. “We said, ‘Oh no, it will never wake up,’ because pulling a plug on a Linux server is the worst thing you can do. But once everything was reconnected, we did a health check and it was back running,” said Fernandez.

Months later, one of the astronauts accidentally hit a reset power button that caused the system to reboot. Again, Spaceborne kept going.

“He felt terrible,” said Fernandez. “But we told him he actually did us a huge favor because that’s the kind of real-world, random accident you can’t simulate.”

Catching pirates at sea

Just as the computer industry continues to achieve more with less—using ever smaller, more mobile computers—satellites are both getting smaller and more powerful. Data analytics firm Spire Global has 61 satellites in space that organizations use to do a range of tasks, such as tracking ships across the ocean and spotting weather trends.

“About 45 percent of our launches go through the ISS,” said Nick Allain, Spire Global’s director of branding. “You get the best pictures and footage from the ISS, and it’s a very reliable and consistent way to get into space.”

One Spire Global customer uses satellite data to determine if certain areas are being over-fished. “This has amazing downstream applications because piracy and food trafficking are big problems,” Allain said.

For example, satellite imagery determined that some fishing vessels were making their allotted catch. However, the fishing boats unloaded onto a refrigerator boat at sea and then caught another full allotment before heading to shore. They only reported the second catch.

“When we’ve shown them the pictures, the government of Indonesia actually blows up the ship and shows those pictures as a warning to what will happen,” said Allain. “The piracy vessels also have ties to human trafficking, so it’s important to put a dent in those activities.”

Moving toward more reliable servers and software

The HPE Spaceborne computer doesn’t do anything in support of the ISS’s daily operation—at least not yet. For the 350-plus days it’s been on the ISS, Spaceborne has been running a series of simulations and test operations to see how it performs.

“This is a general-purpose Linux computer that will run any software NASA has developed to support the mission,” said Fernandez. “For example, you might want to do a CAD/CAM design and build the part you need in space.”

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Based on its performance, HPE is also “hardening” the Spaceborne’s software to make it more reliable and secure. Fernandez said HPE’s patent council is looking at seven different areas where patents might be applicable.

If the Spaceborne continues to work well in space and passes an examination once it returns to earth, Fernandez thinks HPE can apply what it learns to terrestrial challenges. For example, it might improve computer systems that have to operate in harsh conditions here on earth, such as research in the Arctic and undersea exploration.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.