HPE Blog, UK & Ireland

Mission to Mars: How far can we push the edge?

In space, there's no room for error and no time for hesitancy. Astronauts depend on crucial communications from mission control just to stay alive. But the further you travel from Earth, the longer it takes to send and receive messages.

And with sights firmly set on Mars, how do we overcome the 20-minute communication lag to the red planet? The answer, take an all-knowing supercomputer with you to do the big calculations and make the tough calls instead.

Today on Technology Untangled, we're exploring edge computing at its most extreme as host, Michael Bird, explores how high-performance computing could be used to help mankind make its next giant leap. We speak with Eng Lim Goh, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for AI at HPE about his work as Principal Investigator on Spaceborne Computer One and how this prototype paved the way for its successor. And Mark Fernandes, Software Lead for Spaceborne Computer One and Principal Investigator for Spaceborne Computer Two, tells us about the range of applications there are for high-performance computers in space and how Spaceborne Computer 2 is as much for the scientists on earth as it is the astronauts in space. And Aerospace Technologist at NASA Marshall Space Flight Centre, Timothy Lang, explains to us his work on the study of lightning and theorises how high-performance computers in space could help all manner of extra-terrestrial experiments in the future.

Zero modification: taking tech from shelf to shuttle

Usually when you send a computer or other delicate piece of instrumentation into space, it needs to go through a process of hardening to shield it from the cosmic radiation, known to cause random and potentially hazardous bit-flips. But while effective, this process takes time, meaning that the equipment that goes to launch may not be the latest version of itself.

Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for AI at HPE, Eng Lim Goh, tells us about Spaceborne Computer One and Two's "zero modification" philosophy and how their technique of hardening through software enabled the Spaceborne team to send state of the art, off-the-shelf components to the ISS with software advanced enough to monitor and regulate its own performance to protect itself from malfunction.

Science for all: the democratisation of supercomputing

Having a supercomputer onboard a mission to Mars could certainly be useful as communications become more difficult as the distance between the crew and the Earth increases. But while we're still a few years away from sending humans with high-performance computers to the red planet, orbit-dwelling supercomputers can actually play an important role in the Earth-bound scientific community until then.

Mark Fernandez, Software Lead for Spaceborne Computer One and Principal Investigator for Spaceborne Computer Two, explains how having high-performance computers aboard the ISS, and potentially even on other satellites in the future, could drastically reduce the time between data collection and insight delivery by eliminating the need to transmit massive amounts of data down to Earth for processing. He also tells us about a joint initiative between HPE and the ISS National Lab to invite scientists and researchers to submit their own proposals to have their experiments carried out on Spaceborne Computer 2.

Quick calculations and immediate insights: providing data in real-time

With so much processing power, high-performance computers can crunch the numbers on even the most data-heavy experiments with relative ease to get those all-important insights where they need to be quicker than ever before.

Aerospace Technologist at NASA Marshall Space Flight Centre, Timothy Lang, discusses his work with the Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS) that is currently operating on the ISS and discusses the potential uses of technology like Spaceborne Computer 2 in orbit in the future. He explains how faster processing speeds could advance applications requiring real-time data, such as weather forecasting, and he talks about the potential to use high-performance computing to discover correlations between experiments by harnessing the computers' synergistic capabilities.

Key Takeaways

  • Hardening through software is here to stay, and Spaceborne Computers One and Two both proved this, demonstrating that you really can take off-the-shelf components and prepare them for space travel with just the right programming.
  • Space is the new edge. And as we send high-performance computers farther out into the universe, their ability to process data and return only the insights will become more valuable as the communication lag becomes longer and longer.
  • High-performance computers are the key to self-sufficiency, eliminating the need for constant communications with mission control and making deeper space travel a real possibility.

Links and Resources:

Spaceborne Computer | HPE

Spaceborne Computer Timeline | HPE

Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS) | NASA

The Spaceborne Computer Returns to the ISS | ISS National Laboratory

Launching a supercomputer into space | Science Node

Spaceborne Computer 2 linked to Azure Cloud | SpaceNews

Eng Lim Goh | Twitter

Mark Fernandez | Twitter

Timothy Lang | Twitter

Michael Bird
Hewlett Packard Enterprise


Follow me on Twitter: @miclbrd
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About the Author


I'm a Digital Marketing Manager for UK and Ireland at HPE and I've been working in the IT industry for nearly 10 years. I'm fascinated by technology and the impact it has on organisations and us as individuals.

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