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SpaceX’s next launch will send an HPE supercomputer to the International Space Station

Tomorrow, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is set to launch another batch of cargo and science experiments to the International Space Station, and that shipment will include a supercomputer from Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Called the Spaceborne Computer, the system is a joint project between HPE and NASA to see if a commercial computer can be designed to last in the harsh space environment. If successful, similar computers could be critical tools for future deep-space missions beyond Earth.

The space station’s location in lower Earth orbit makes it an unfriendly place for computers. Because the ISS sits outside the majority of Earth’s protective atmosphere, it’s exposed to more radiation — from solar flares and cosmic rays that originate outside the Solar System. This exposure can degrade technology over time, so computers that go to space have to be physically “hardened” with shielding in order to withstand this higher radiation environment. But this upgrading process takes a lot of time and money, and it adds weight to the computer, according to HPE.

The Spaceborne Computer is an experiment to see if regular “off-the-shelf” computers can operate in space over long periods of time. The computer is also equipped to deal with radiation exposure differently, relying on software upgrades rather than hardware. It runs on an open-source Linux operating system and is programmed to recognize when a high-radiation event is occurring, for instance. It will then respond by throttling its systems and lowering its operating speed to save power and avoid damage, according to NASA.

A rendering of the Spaceborne Computer.
Image: NASA

The computer supposedly passed 146 “safety tests and certifications” to be approved for space travel by NASA, says HPE. Once it launches to orbit, the computer is supposed to last a year…

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