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Mission to Mars: How edge computing will make it possible

This episode of Technology Untangled details the design work that went into HPE's Spaceborne Computer missions and why high-performance edge computing is key to future space travel and research.

There's been much activity around the next giant leap for humankind: a mission to Mars. But without edge computing—enabled by high-performance systems such as HPE's Spaceborne Computer-2, which earlier this year launched to the International Space Station—it's unlikely such an endeavor would be possible.

For one, astronauts depend on instant communications with mission control to stay alive, but the farther they travel from earth, the longer it takes to send and receive messages. Also, to conduct research and experiments, they need to make calculations and get answers to questions on the spot, instead of waiting for earth-bound supercomputers to do the work for them.

Given Mars is 250 million miles away, "astronauts will need to be more and more self-sufficient," says Dr. Eng Lim Goh, senior vice president and chief technologist for artificial intelligence at Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

Please watch: Why on earth should we care about space?

What's more, the computer system they depend on there will need to be self-reliant as well, says Goh. "We cannot expect astronauts to be fully trained on the IT side to maintain this computer," he says. "For example, on the space station, although I have a lot of volunteers to fly up there to service [Spaceborne], if it breaks, it needs to be autonomous. The computer needs to be able to take care of itself as much as possible."

DIY computer systems

As Goh explains, that self-sufficiency was a driving factor in the design of the first Spaceborne system. Zero modification to components was also key. "If you start to modify something, it will take time, and therefore, by the time you launch, you won't have the very latest high-performance computer," Goh says.

To harden systems against cosmic radiation and other environmental conditions, the team took a new approach: autonomous software.

Mark Fernandez worked on the team that designed the software for the first Spaceborne mission and is now principal investigator for Spaceborne Computer-2. "Many of the computers on board the space station today were put up 20 years ago," he says. "When you go to the moon or Mars, you want to take modern software with you that's only going to run on modern computers."

Please read: The space station's new supercomputer

Using so-called consequential versus preventative programming, Fernandez and his team developed software that identifies errors and corrects them on its own, or even shuts down critical systems to prevent potential damage. Fernandez explains, "The consequential paradigm that we use says, 'I don't care why that memory failed. Did it fail because of radiation? Did it fail because it got shaken? Did it fail because it just wore out? I don't care. What's the consequence of me losing that piece of hardware?'"

Pushing the edge farther out

As Fernandez notes, the innovative design work that went into the first Spaceborne mission provided a proof of concept for the current Spaceborne Computer-2 system. "So now we have a proven platform, if you would, upon which we can provide services, and Spaceborne 2 is all about services to the rest of the space community," he says.

A big part of that is demonstrating the value of edge computing—no matter where the edge is. With eyes on the moon and Mars, Fernandez says, "we want [astronauts] to have the experience and confidence that the computers they take with them are going to enable them to achieve their mission."

Please read the report: Your edge. Your future.

In addition to enabling missions 250 million miles away, high-performance edge computers like Spaceborne Computer-2 will allow scientists to work on data-heavy experiments closer to home. For example, Timothy Lang, an aerospace technologist at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, details his work on a lightning imaging sensor mounted on the ISS.

"You can use information from lightning to deduce the structure of a cloud, and that's important for understanding weather, climate, and various other issues," he explains.

Although Lang doesn't currently use Spaceborne Computer-2 to process the data captured by the ISS lightning sensor, he says he expects that will happen in the future, not only for his project but others as well. And where the value of edge computing comes in is being able to locally process data from multiple devices and even integrate and collate data from different studies.

Please listen to: Beyond space travel: How HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 will help earthlings

"That performance computing, or even just lessons learned from these sorts of demonstration missions like HPE's, can be applied to these new missions to get better data products out of them," Lang says.

Listen to other episodes

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