Microsoft and HPE Bring Advanced Data Processing and Cloud Computing to Space Station

C. Drake

Summary Bullets:

  • HPE’s SBC-2 computer system on the International Space Station will enable advanced data processing in support of space-based research, while connecting to Microsoft’s Azure cloud on Earth.
  • Despite SBC-2’s potential, the new computer system will be vulnerable to the same environmental challenges as its predecessor.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Microsoft have joined forces to combine the potential of HPE’s edge computing technology and Microsoft’s cloud computing capabilities in outer space. HPE’s Spaceborne Computer-2 (SBC-2) system – soon to be deployed on the International Space Station (ISS) – will enable many new activities on the space station that require advanced data processing. It will also connect via satellite to Microsoft’s cloud data centers on Earth for more demanding requirements. However, despite the potential offered by SBC-2, the new computer system will be vulnerable to the same environmental challenges as its predecessor.

SBC-2, which is based on HPE’s Edgeline Converged Edge System, can be seen as an example of edge computing, an activity that enables data processing to be carried out in remote locations, often far from traditional or cloud data centers. Traditionally, data collected in space, including data to support the study of weather patterns, climate science, national security, and disaster response, had to be sent to Earth to be processed, either via satellite communications or using transported hard drives. This process was either costly in terms of the amount of bandwidth needed or resulted in time delays which limited research efficiency.

Processing locally collected data in space can speed up and lower the cost of space exploration, while reducing the time in which data can be analyzed and utilized. For example, ISS-based astronauts and researchers will be able to use locally processed data to support a range of activities that include DNA sequencing, doing ultrasound medical imaging for astronaut healthcare, modelling dust storms to assist with Mars mission planning, and analyzing satellite data.

SBC-2 offers twice the amount of data processing power of its predecessor, SBC-1, which was sent to the ISS in August 2017 and which returned to Earth in May 2019. SBC-2 is also equipped with GPU capabilities to support projects that leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques. Additionally, the new computer system will connect to Microsoft’s Azure cloud via NASA and HPE ground stations on Earth. This is designed to ensure that more complex data, which requires in-depth analysis and longer-term storage, can be transmitted to one of Microsoft’s terrestrial cloud data centers.

However, despite these new capabilities and the stronger potential of SBC-2, the new computer system will encounter the same environmental challenges faced by SBC-1. Outside Earth’s protective atmosphere, IT equipment is exposed to high levels of cosmic radiation from deep space, as well as particles from the Sun. Furthermore, machinery on the ISS can experience power and temperature fluctuations, which can damage electronics. Compounding these risks is the fact that SBC-1 never benefitted from a proper failure analysis autopsy, owing to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Had it done so, lessons might have been learned which could have influenced the design of SBC-2.

Instead of adding extra protective hardware, which may have been prohibitively expensive, HPE opted to protect SBC-2 using software. This software will monitor various parameters (including power, temperature, and voltage) and, in the event of something going wrong, implement responsive measures that include full shutdown. In the short term, such measures will help to guard against the risk of catastrophic failure. Longer term, however, it is likely that more robust protective measures will be needed if the benefits of edge computing in outer space are to be fully realized.

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