The Final Frontier: Fueling Space Exploration with Edge, Cloud, and Open Source

C. Drake

Summary Bullets:

  • Recent experiments conducted on the ISS showcase the potential for edge computing, cloud, and open source software to advance space research and exploration.
  • The experiments have involved technology from IBM, Red Hat, HPE, and Microsoft, illustrating the benefits of a collaborative approach by ‘big tech’ to space exploration.

Since its launch into space earlier this year, the Spaceborne Computer-2 (SC-2) on the International Space Station (ISS) has been enabling several important experiments, including crop cultivation projects and efforts to monitor astronaut health.  These experiments showcase the potential for edge computing, cloud computing, and open source software to advance space research and play a key role in missions to explore the Moon, Mars, and beyond.  The experiments have involved technology from IBM, Red Hat, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), and Microsoft, also illustrating the benefits of a collaborative approach by ‘big tech’ to space exploration.

SC-2 is based on HPE’s Edgeline EL4000 converged edge computing systems, which combine compute and storage capabilities with analytics software.  SC-2 is designed to process data obtained from hundreds of data-collecting sensors and instruments, including satellites, cameras, and equipment on board the ISS.  The computer’s real-time data processing capabilities, which include GPUs for AI/ML workloads, significantly enhance the ability to learn from and act on data collected in space.

Traditionally, data collected in space had to be sent to Earth for analysis on hard drives – a process that would take weeks.  Now, the ability to process data locally on the space station means that only data requiring deeper analysis needs to be sent to Earth.

This is where cloud computing comes into play.  America’s space agency, NASA, has teamed up with Microsoft and IBM, whose cloud data centers on Earth are used to store and facilitate further processing and analysis of data collected in space.  IBM, for example, is involved in an initiative to analyze DNA sequencing data, having developed a custom edge computing solution that runs on HPE’s SC-2.  The solution leverages Red Hat CodeReady Containers, essentially a single OpenShift cluster.  Analytical code is captured in containers, which are then transmitted to IBM’s cloud data centers on Earth.  There, researchers develop and test the code and prepare it to be pushed back to the ISS.

The DNA sequencing project, called Genes in Space-3, is used for identifying microbes on the ISS.  This can benefit various initiatives, including monitoring astronaut health or discovering possible infections on the space station.  The DNA research currently being carried out on the ISS is expected to play a key role in future missions, including those of NASA’s Artemis program, which envisages the establishment of a sustainable presence on the Moon en route to Mars.

Another technology that already supports space exploration, and one which will benefit future missions to the Moon and Mars, is open source software.  NASA has been using open source in some of its R&D projects for at least a decade; previous initiatives involving open source include the Mars Ingenuity Helicopter, while future initiatives include the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), which in 2023 will be sent to the Moon to search for water.  The benefits of open source software to space exploration are now widely recognized; among them is the potential to combine diverse skills and perspectives to tackle complex challenges.

Used together, edge computing, cloud computing, and open source promise to transform the way space exploration exploits the power of data, enabling a more efficient and rapid way of processing, analyzing, sharing, and acting on data.  Ultimately, this will ensure that space exploration is safer, an essential requirement for longer missions into outer space.

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