Richard Ward on Importance of Computing in Space
Computing in Space is absolutely critical to conducting successful business in space. For the last 20 years, we can probably count the industries who did not convert their business into data as a way of tracking performance and success.
We caught up with Richard Ward, Founder and CTO of OrbitsEdge; a US company driving towards a data-enabled future space economy partially in partnership with Hewlett Packard Enterprises; to discuss the importance of this field and the progress that they’re making.
Whilst this article will read as quite all-American, rest assured that the UK is not far behind on this growing sector, and companies such as OrbitsEdge will be looking to our launch facilities in the future for access to Polar and high inclination orbits.
For now though, and indeed today, Richard and I watched remotely as a Northrop Grumman ISS resupply missions roared into the skies carrying a precious cargo indeed.
Pictured at the top of this article is the Spaceborne Supercomputer-1 which was installed on the International Space Station in 2017, and which carried out an impressive near-60,000 experiments aboard as the predecessor to today’s mission.
Dr Mark Fernandez, the Solution Architect behind the Hewlett Packard (HPE) Converged Edge Systems is also the Principal Investigator (space research talk for Project Manager) for SBC-2 who said:
“In 2017, we were able to put a teraflop system on the International Space Station to prove that we could do a trillion calculations a second in space.” Which to you and me is about double the power of the latest iPhone if the time, and iPhone 7 which clocks in at about 50 Gflops. For reference, over that time period cutting edge computing technology has moved rapidly, with the iPhoneX boasting about four times the floating-point computing power of the iPhone 7 of 2017.
Today, HPE and OrbitsEdge have launched two of their latest EdgeLine computers, hardened using the OrbitsEdge frameworks, which in the future is intended to allow satellites to carry cutting edge equipment safe against the worst that the harshness of space can throw at it.
What does this mean to the future of human space-flight and beyond though? Simply, it allows more data to be analysed on orbit, which saves on the time astronauts have to spend on the space station preparing data for transmission or physically return to Earth due to the dramatically small bandwidth available to assets on orbit today.
Future missions beyond Low Earth Orbit accept that data management is an important consideration to mission success, and certainly anyone hoping to gain from the benefits of cloud computing will need an improved data infrastructure in their working environment, which happens to be space.
This two or three year mission will provide real-time computing and analysis benefits to astronauts on the International Space Station which is undoubtedly a good thing, but the true benefit of this computer will be to unlock the secrets that will allow companies from the US, UK and further afield to exploit the power of computing no matter where we go to push the boundaries of our exploration.
Richard reminds us that the challenges here are not small and we’re expecting to learn lots about: computer performance in high radiation environments over a really long period of time, such as the duration of a Mars mission, we will learn about how to build computers bespoke for the rigours of space launch, pulling several G’s vertically at launch and laterally through the violent shaking that still occurs today when rockets kick the tyres and light the fires.
Richard’s systems today are designed to service the Earth Observation market which he reminds us is a rapidly growing market, critical to fully understanding the human impact on Earth, but that this one super-computer isn’t enough to solve the many and varied challenges ahead: “HPE has entered into a partnership with Microsoft Azure Space to explore the benefits of edge compute in space. They have a number of targets for their research and their plans somewhat reflect our own thoughts on the roles of compute in space. OrbitsEdge sees Azure Space as a recognition of the importance of space compute, without actually tackling the problem of putting compute in space.” He says, and in the same way that Earth Observation itself has moved away from large and expensive capital assets to a constellation approach, Richard goes on to reveal a similar strategy from his company: “While their system is good in a ‘big data’ sense, it does not actually address Edge Compute IN space. SBC-2 addresses this, but a compute capability on the ISS is not as flexible as the OrbitsEdge constellation will be.”
This article was written in partnership with Ricard Ward, Founder & CTO of OrbitsEdge and Philip Day of Giant-Leap.Space.
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