The ISS Is Getting the Most Powerful Computer Ever Sent to Space

By David Grossman

It's a test that could be vital for interplanetary travel.

NASA and Hewlett-Packard Enterprises (HPE) are sending a computer with the computing power of around 1 teraflop into space. It's the most powerful computer ever to stay at the International Space Station, the closest thing to a supercomputer to ever travel beyond the atmosphere.

The experiment, traveling on a SpaceX transport, is designed to be a building block for future extended human trips beyond the moon, most likely to Mars. A trip like that would take somewhere between six and eight months, depending where the Red Planet was on its elliptical orbit. As they traveled, humans would face longer and longer communication delays with Earth, eventually take an hour and a half for a message to get through.

While that might not seem so long—after all, it took parts of America a week to find out Lincoln was shot—life-or-death decisions can occur within moments in space. Course corrections, systems malfunctions, oxygen leaks, the number of accidents that occur in the void of space are too numerous to mention. Powerful computers, presumably with some sort of A.I (that aren't HAL), will make those calculations more manageable.

A teraflop is a unit of computing that represents trillion floating-point operations per second (this becomes an acronym that spells out 'flop' if you try hard enough). Floating point operations are essentially a computer reading its programming language. It's something similar to miles-per-gallon for cars or battery life on a phone, a measurement of performance. A single teraflop is akin to a high-end laptop, last year Microsoft announced a gaming system with six teraflops.

NASA isn't coating the computer in radioactive shielding, it wants to see how a computer of its abilities degrades in space. Throughout the year, NASA will be running various benchmark tests on the computer, measuring its performance over time. A twin will be on Earth running the same tests as a control.

"This goes along with the space station's mission to facilitate exploration beyond low Earth orbit," Mark Fernandez, HPE's leading payload engineer for the project, tells Ars Technia. "If this experiment works, it opens up a universe of possibility for high performance computing in space."

Source: Ars Technica

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