Engineering news

Hardening space computers with software

Alex Eliseev

SpaceX rocket launch (Credit: SpaceX)
SpaceX rocket launch (Credit: SpaceX)

A new experiment will test whether commercial computers can withstand radiation in space, and bring down costs for space exploration.

Off-the-shelf computers don’t often land up in space, but a new experiment about to begin at the International Space Station (ISS) could change that. 

A commercial Hewlett Packard Enterprises computer is hitching a ride onboard the 12th SpaceX cargo mission to the ISS, which is due to take off at 5.30pm on Monday (14 August). 

The idea behind the experiment is to use software and a custom-built enclosure to test a regular server computer’s ability to withstand cosmic radiation and solar flares. Normally, computers used in space flight and exploration are “radiation hardened” through expensive hardware, which can take years to develop, test and produce.  

The UK Space Agency’s Libby Jackson, a former space flight controller and director, told Professional Engineering that experiment is interesting because it could, ultimately, bring down the costs associated with computers in space. 

“If this works, it could make the hardware that we need to go into space more accessible and cheaper because if we can just use something that everyone else is using, we don’t have to specially build it.” 

Jackson, the agency’s human spaceflight and microgravity programme manager, said every craft that goes into space relies on computers for everything from navigation to communication. 

“Computers underlie everything,” Jackson said. 

The problem, she explained, is that cosmic and solar radiation is not only bad for humans, but also for computers. It can scramble data, swap ones and zeros and cause glitches. Earth is protected against this radiation by magnetic fields but the further you go into space, the more exposed you become to it. Jackson said that while the ISS is shielded to a degree, “radiation events” do occur and the test will show whether the computer’s software is able to detect radiation and protect itself from it by, for example, slowing down its operations. 

The supercomputer, called Spaceborne Computer, contains two servers and no modifications to its hardware. A water-cooled enclosure will further help it deflect radiation while the software will have to meet Nasa’s strict standards, in place to protect spacecrafts and astronauts.

HPE’s chief technology officer (SGI), Eng Lim Goh, told PE that the experiment has a rather poetic ring to it: hardening computers through software. 

The vision, he explains, is to allow astronauts to order computers shortly before a mission, load them up with the required software and blast off. Instead of highly customised programmes, Goh said, the computers would work on the same basis as an iPhone with a range of Applications. 

“The further astronauts travel away from earth, the more self-sufficient they have to become,” Goh added. “The computers have to have flexibility,  a range of application and must anticipate the needs of those using them.”   

According to the HPE, the supercomputer has already passed almost 150 safety tests and, once at the ISS, will conduct two highly stressful tests on its computing ability and memory. It will also run one of Nasa’s applications.

Meanwhile, the latest cargo delivery to the station by Elon Musk’s company will see almost three tons of research equipment, hardware and supplies for the crew. SpaceX has also been experimenting with reusing its rockets and the capsules that reach the ISS. 

“It’s a very exciting time in space flight,” Jackson said. 

Click here to watch a video of the launch and the rocket's return.  

Follow: @alexeliseev 

 
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