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Life on Mars?

Image: Adobe Stock / Connect world

There soon will be if Microsoft and HPE have their way, as cloud ‘data bursts’ from space help move astronauts closer to Mars as well as helping to improve life here on Earth.

I think with the current and tragic happenings in Afghanistan, the famous musings of Michael Collins are now more poignant than ever.

As Collins watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin make their historic lunar walk from a portal on the Apollo 11, he looked back at our planet, which he saw as blue, white, and beautiful, without borders.

It struck Collins that humans would have a better future if political leaders could also see the world this way, as a whole globe, and learn to collaborate.

But his thoughts couldn’t be shared until he was safely back on Earth, partially due to the severely limited connectivity between Apollo 11 and ground control.

Software engineers and researchers are now coming together to change that, with a new partnership that will not only improve communications and enable experiments that will propel astronauts further into space, but will also benefit those on Earth as well.

But how?

A device the size of a microwave is how my friends. Said device being a supercomputer of course. And this supercomputer is getting linked to the cloud, from space.

Team work makes the dream work so they say, and rather than a place of fierce competition, space is going through a major transformation period.

We’re in the midst of a new space race, powered by new technology, except this time, it’s a joint effort.

For instance, now, reusable rockets are making space exploration more affordable and opening it up to more players. Something that would have been unheard of not that long ago.

Chriztine Kretz, vice president of programs and partnerships at the International Space Station US National Laboratory says, “that’s the new space. It’s tearing down rivalries and divisions.”

Kretz’s organization has been directed by NASA, through Congress, to manage the US National Laboratory onboard the International Space Station (ISS), and it’s her job to hunt for groups — from universities to startups to tech giants — that will ‘make the best possible use of technology for this spacecraft that has become a floating laboratory circling the globe.’

With hundreds of experiments and ideas in the works, scientists of course need solid infrastructure and connection to run and access their experiments. They’d need it in a lab on Earth, therefore it’s even more critical up in space.

And that’s exactly what a new partnership between Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Microsoft aims to provide, with edge computing and the Azure cloud.

HPEs Spaceborne Computer 2 e1629310960549 768x557 1
HPE’s Spaceborne Computer-2 is about the size of a microwave oven (Photo by NASA)

What’s new?

Until now, research data collected from the space station has been transmitted down in dribs and drabs because of competing priorities for the limited connectivity available.

By the time researchers got their data, it was too late to make any necessary tweaks to the collection process or to react to any surprises that might pop up outside the influence of gravity.

Such constrained connectivity also can delay communicating critical decisions to the astronauts, who often have to wait for information to reach ground control and be analysed there and then returned with the necessary insight.

That’s hard enough with the space station, which orbits as high as 250 miles above the earth. But the moon is almost a thousand times further than that. And at its farthest orbiting position, Mars is a million times that distance.

Essentially, missions further into outer space will need stronger computing power at the astronauts’ fingertips and a better pipeline for sharing information.

HPE was already designing supercomputers for NASA to use for the heavy computing required to plan missions.

So, the company took one of the hundreds of high-performance computing servers that comprise a supercomputer, and tested it, to make sure:

  1. it could fit in a rocket
  2. it could survive the shaking, rattling chaos of a launch
  3. it could be installed by untrained personnel
  4. (and possibly most importantly) that it could function in space, where stray cosmic rays can flip a computer’s 1s into 0s or vice versa and wreak havoc on the system.

It worked.

Enter, Spaceborne Computer-2

And now the second iteration – Spaceborne Computer-2, sent up to the ISS in February – has a significantly more advanced system, purposely engineered for harsh environments and for processing artificial intelligence and analytics, says Mark Fernandez, HPE’s principal investigator for the project.

Spaceborne Computer-2 is powerful enough to do the work of analysing data at the source of collection — right there in space — with a process called edge computing.

It’s as if your hand normally sent information to your brain and had to wait for analysis and response before giving the signal to pull back from a hot stove, and then it suddenly got the ability to analyse the temperature right at the fingertip itself and decide to immediately recoil fromthe heat.

Need for speed

Not all instruments on the space station collect data constantly, and some require video to be sent down to Earth frequently. This reduces the amount of data that needs transmitted, freeing up the stream for more experiments.

That said, lengthier computations still need sent down to Earth for help.

At the moment, one of the experiments being undertaken by the partners, is based on the healthcare needs of astronauts on longer space missions, which makes technology that can frequently monitor changes over time particularly crucial.

Threats like additional radiation exposure are far risker when travelling further afield. After all, Mars is a seven-month journey away from medical treatment, so astronauts taking part in the experiment download their genomes and analyse them for anomalies.

Essentially, space is the ultimate test of telemedicine that’s being eyed for remote locations around the world as well.

But as you can imagine, the data generated from sequencing a single human genome? About six billion characters, equating to around 200 gigabytes of raw data.

And with the Spaceborne Computer-2 only allotted two hours of communication bandwidth a week for transmitting data to Earth, with a maximum download speed of 250 kilobytes per second, that’s less than two gigabytes a week – not even enough to download a Netflix movie — meaning it would take two years to transmit just one genomic dataset.

David Weinstein, a principal software engineering manager for Microsoft’s Azure Space division says, “It’s like being back on a dial-up modem in the ‘90s.”

Bursting with ideas

To combat this, Weinstein’s team developed the idea to flip what many organisations do now when they run out of room for computations within their own computer systems and “burst” the overflow temporarily up to the cloud — it’s the same pattern, he says, just bursting down to the cloud from space instead.

When the space station runs out of computing room during an experiment, it will automatically burst down into the huge network of Azure computers to get help, connecting space and Earth to solve the problem in the cloud.

Basically, following code written by engineers to find events or anomalies that need extra scrutiny, Spaceborne Computer-2 can scour the data onboard and then simply burst the bit needed down to Earth and into Azure.

From there, scientists anywhere in the world can use the power of cloud computing to run their algorithms for analysis and decisions, accessing millions of computers running in parallel and linked by 165,000 miles of fiberoptic cables connecting Azure data centres scattered throughout 65 regions around the globe.

From months to minutes

Mark Fernandez, HPE’s principal investigator for the project, recalls hearing the frustrations of one researcher who said it would take months to get her data from the space station.

Fernandez offered to help, and the Spaceborne Computer processed her dataset in six minutes, compressed it and then downloaded a file that was 20,000 times smaller, he says.

“So we went from months to minutes,” Fernandez says. “And that’s when the lightbulb went off.”

Speed is even more important because Congress has only authorised a budget for the space station through 2024 so researchers need to get as much done as they can in the time they have left.

HPE has so far completed four initial experiments — including bursting data down to the Microsoft cloud, with a successful “hello world” message — and has four others underway and 29 more in the queue, Fernandez says.

Some of the tests have to do with healthcare, such as the genome experiment and transmitting sonograms and X-rays of the astronauts.

Others are in life sciences, such as analysing the crops grown onboard for longer missions to determine if an odd-looking potato is just deformed due to the lack of gravity — a new variable in biology — or is infected with something and needs to be destroyed.

Other tests still deal with space travel and satellite-to-satellite communication.

Rocket science is no longer rocket science

The constraints of space craft, in that they are constantly getting smaller and more powerful, but still have to be lightweight and self-contained, is forcing engineers and developers to rethink their designs.

This is prompting innovations here on Earth, that lead to breakthroughs in applied science with a variety of uses back on ground, says Steve Kitay, who was the deputy assistant secretary for space policy for the US Department of Defense before joining Microsoft last year to lead Azure Space.

“Space has historically been an environment dominated by major states and governments, because it was so expensive to build and launch space systems. But what’s happening now is rapid commercialisation that’s opening up new opportunities for many more actors,” says Kitay.

The novel and collaborative use of open-source software, using code that’s publicly available for any programmer to develop and customize, has made it far easier to build programmes that can run in the space station.

Since Spaceborne Computer-2 has an Azure connection with the same off-the-shelf tools and languages as computers on Earth, Glenn Musa, a senior software engineer for Azure Space says developers, “no longer have to be special space engineers or rocket scientists” to build apps for the ISS but can do so with the skills of a high school computer science student.

So many working on space exploration today, were born too late for the space race of last century, but too early to actually explore space in our own rockets.

However, “once we’re able to connect devices from space to the computers we have here on Earth, we open up a big sandbox, and we can all be part of experimentation in space and developing new technologies that we’ll use in the future,” says Musa.

“This wasn’t possible before, but now the possibilities are endless.”

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