SpaceX sends a supercomputer and lots more science experiments to space station

SpaceX launch
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket rises from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as spectators watch from Florida’s Space Coast. (NASA via YouTube)

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has sent a robotic Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station with three tons of supplies and scientific experiments, including a supercomputer that could help blaze the trail to Mars.

The Spaceborne Computer project, pioneered by NASA and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, will subject off-the-shelf computer hardware to a yearlong test under the challenging conditions of spaceflight. It’s one of more than 250 science experiments and investigations that will get a boost from the payloads packed on the Dragon.

Liftoff took place at 12:31 p.m. today (9:31 a.m. PT) from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center after a trouble-free countdown.

After stage separation, the Falcon 9’s first-stage booster flew itself back to SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral, Fla., not far from the launch site. Sonic booms heralded a successful landing.

SpaceX Falcon 9 landing
The Falcon 9 rocket’s first-stage booster stands tall at Landing Zone 1 after touchdown. (SpaceX via YouTube)

Meanwhile, the second stage pushed the Dragon onward to orbit. If all goes well, the Dragon will rendezvous with the space station on Wednesday, and astronauts will pull the craft in for its berthing with the aid of the station’s robotic arm.

The supercomputer that’s aboard the Dragon isn’t designed for use in navigation or any other critical functions. Instead, it’ll be operated aboard the station to test HPE innovations aimed at pushing the envelope for future computers in space.

The heart of the machine is a set of HPE Apollo 40 class systems with a high-speed HPC interconnect, running an open-source Linux operating system.

“Though there are no hardware modifications to these components, we created a unique water-cooled enclosure for the hardware and developed purpose-built system software to address the environmental constraints and reliability requirements of supercomputing in space,” Alain Andreoli, senior vice president and general manager of HPE’s data center infrastructure group, explained in a blog post.

Traditionally, computers designed for use in space have to undergo radiation hardening to operate reliably in the space environment. The Spaceborne Computer project will test a software-based approach that involves real-time throttling of system operations, based on current conditions.

HPE plans to follow up on the yearlong space test with further experiments that could improve the prospects for computing on Mars as well as here on Earth.

Here are some of the other experiments flying on the Dragon:

  • The Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) instrument, due to be attached to a Japanese
    experimental platform on the station’s exterior, will measures the charges of cosmic rays ranging from hydrogen to iron nuclei.
  • Crystallization of Leucine-rich Repeat Kinase 2 (LRRK2) Under Microgravity Conditions aims to take advantage of zero-gravity to produce crystals of a protein implicated in Parkinson’s disease, with improvements in size and shape over what can be produced in Earth’s gravity. The experiment was developed by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, Anatrace and Com-Pac International.
  • The Effect of Microgravity on Stem Cell Mediated Recellularization (Lung Tissue) will test strategies for growing new lung tissue. Using bioengineering techniques, the Lung Tissue experiment involves culturing different types of lung cells in controlled conditions aboard the space station.
  • The Kestrel Eye investigation is a microsatellite carrying an optical imaging system payload, including a telescope. This investigation validates the concept of using microsatellites in low-Earth orbit to support critical operations, such as tracking severe weather and monitoring natural disasters.

Lots more microsatellites are being shipped to the space station for deployment. One of the commercial satellites, SpaceVR’s Overview 1A, carries a 360-degree camera that’s designed to provide a live virtual-reality space experience to subscribers.