Computing at the edge of space: HPE and Microsoft conduct International Space Station experiments

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The International Space Station as seen from a departing Soyuz spacecraft. (NASA Photo)

If your cell phone went out 17 times a day, for anywhere from 1 second to 20 minutes, you’d get a new wireless provider. That’s basically what astronauts on the International Space Station are dealing with, but they don’t have that option.

That’s how Mark Fernandez of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE) explains the state of communications between the ISS and Earth — and it’s one reason he’s excited to have a computer on board.

Fernandez is principal investigator for HPE’s Spaceborne Computer-2, which was launched to the International Space Station in February.

“The communications continuity for the space station is very fragile,” he explained. “So we need to empower [astronauts] to be more autonomous. And by having Spaceborne Computer-2 board, not only does it build up their confidence, but it builds up their ability to solve their own problems without relying on Earth.”

That makes the International Space Station an extreme case study for edge computing, the concept of bringing storage and processing closer to the source of data to improve speed and reduce the bandwidth needed for cloud computing.

“We’re seeing more scenarios move to the edge, and that is changing how developers think about writing applications, and how they think about bandwidth and the scarcity of bandwidth,” said Tom Keane, Microsoft Azure corporate vice president. “And space, of course, gives you a great understanding.”

For Microsoft, the project is part of a larger effort called Azure Space that also includes partnerships with SpaceX and others.

HPE’s Spaceborne Computer-2 uses off-the-shelf servers and components encased in hardware designed for harsh environments. Microsoft and HPE have worked together to connect Spaceborne Computer-2 to Azure from orbit to enable advanced artificial intelligence applications on the ISS.

Spaceborne Computer-2 (HPE Image)

They’re using standard and open-source tools such as Python and Linux containers to ensure that others can participate or build on their approaches in the future.

The companies announced Wednesday that they’ve completed their first experiments. They’ve ranged from successful “hello world” message to tests on a potato that was grown onboard the ISS in zero gravity, to better understand the cause of its deformities.

But the big test so far has been an intensive analysis of astronaut genomes, seeking new clues about the impact of extended stays in space on the human body.

The raw data amounts to hundreds of gigabytes, an impractical size to attempt to transmit under the circumstances. Spaceborne Computer-2 is allocated two hours a week for downloads from the ISS over an aging system that uses Tracking and Data Relay Satellites (TDRS) to connect to base stations on Earth.

Instead, the companies took software developed by Microsoft and packaged it up into Linux containers to process astronaut genomes on Spaceborne Computer-2. Then they sent the details of any mutations down to Earth to analyze against National Institutes of Health databases and generate the results.

“That’s a short little message that we can return back to the Space Station,” Fernandez said. “It’s been taking weeks, if not months, to download that genome previously, whereas we can download in just a few minutes once we’ve processed at the edge.”

The companies say they’ve completed a total of four experiments so far, with four more underway and 29 more planned beyond that. Spaceborne Computer-2 is expected to be used for research projects at the ISS for two to three years.

Time is of the essence: Congress has authorized the ISS budget through 2024, but even if the budget is extended, it’s not expected to go beyond 2030.

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