How Spaceborne Computer-2 will help astronauts on the ISS


The HPE Spaceborne Computer-2
(Courtesy: Hewlett Packard Enterprise)

The computer is scheduled to be launched into orbit on the 15th Northrop Grumman Resupply Mission (NG-15) on 20 February. It will be available for use on the International Space Station for the next 2-3 years. “The possibilities of on-board computers are fascinating to me… I have a saying: ‘self-sufficient computing enables self-sufficient (space) explorers’,” Fernandez said during a press call on Thursday.

So, what exactly is ‘edge computing’? It is computing that is done at or near the source of the data. For instance, if astronauts on the space station 3D-print an object, researchers back here on earth run simulations and routines to see if it’s safe to use the object. Now, with SBC-2, astronauts will be able to run these tests and routines on the ISS, saving them valuable mission time.

Fernandez explains how the new computing system, which will also have artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities, will help astronauts with research activities both inside and outside the space station. Inside the station, the computer will help with research conducted in areas of healthcare, life sciences and manufacturing (3-D printing is a part of this). Outside, SBC-2 will help with data & image processing and remote sensing.

The space station is dotted with hundreds of sensors from Nasa and other international space organizations. These sensors collect tonnes of data, which require a significant amount of bandwidth to send to earth to be processed. With in-space edge computing, researchers can process on-board images, signals and other data on everything from air quality — by measuring emission levels and other pollutants in the atmosphere — to tracking objects moving in space and in the atmosphere.

Apart from that, the computer will also come equipped with graphic processing units or GPUs to process image-intensive data, which require higher image resolution such as shots of polar ice caps on earth or medical X-rays. Fernandez says SBC-2 will enable astronauts to eliminate longer latency and wait times associated with sending data to-and-from earth to tackle research in different areas.


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