When the Spaceborne Computer-2 was launched to the International Space Station (ISS) a year back, it marked the beginning of an interesting computing experiment that would take place on the edge of space – quite literally.
Earlier this week, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) revealed that Spaceborne Computer-2 (SBC-2) – the first in-space commercial edge computing and artificial intelligence-enabled system to run on the space station – has successfully completed 24 research experiments. These ranged across use cases supporting healthcare, image processing, natural disaster recovery, 3D printing, 5G, and solutions enabled by artificial intelligence.
Ultimately, the goal behind testing SBC-2 on board the space station is to significantly advance computing and reduce dependence on communications as humans travel farther into space to the Moon and Mars. In lay terms, edge computing is computing that is done at or near the source of the data. For example, if astronauts on the space station 3D-print an object, researchers back here on earth run simulations and routines to see if it’s safe to use the object. Now, with SBC-2, astronauts will be able to run these tests and routines on the ISS, saving them crucial mission time.
HPE launched the Spaceborne Computer-2, in collaboration with the ISS National Laboratory, to space in February 2021 and it was installed on the space station in May 2021. It comprises HPE edge computing solutions like the HPE Edgeline Converged EL4000 Edge system, which provides a rugged and compact system designed to perform in harsher edge environments, such as space. It also includes a server – called the HPE ProLiant DL360 – that allows additional high-performing capabilities to manage a range of workloads.
In an interview with Mint last year, Dr Mark Fernandez, principal investigator, Spaceborne Computer-2, at HPE, had said that the possibilities of on-board computers were fascinating. “Self-sufficient computing enables self-sufficient (space) explorers,” Fernandez said. He added: “The most important benefit to delivering reliable in-space computing with Spaceborne Computer-2 is making real-time insights a reality. Space explorers can now transform how they conduct research based on readily available data and improve decision-making.”
One of the most important things SBC-2 has allowed astronauts to do is enable faster computing and shorter download times to Earth. Previously, 1.8 GB of raw DNA sequence data took an average time of 12.2 hours just to download to Earth for initial processing. “With SBC-2, researchers onboard the space station processed that same data in just six minutes to gather meaningful insights, compressed it to 92 KB and sent it to Earth in just two seconds, representing a 20,000X speed-up,” a news release from HPE explains. These timings are based on data logged on SBC-2 on a DNA sequencing experiment.
Another experiment – this one was led by US space agency Nasa, HPE and Microsoft – focused on increasing human safety and self-sufficiency by using AI-enabled damage detection in astronaut gloves. Photos and recorded video taken in space of recently worn gloves by astronauts, were processed by the SBC-2. The glove analyzer model was then used to rapidly look for signs of damage on-orbit, in space. If damage is detected, an AI-annotated photo is generated in space and immediately sent to Earth, highlighting areas for further review by engineers at Nasa, the news release explains.
Apart from this, SBC-2 was also used in an experiment to automatically interpret remote sensed images from land and structures after a disaster. Why is this relevant? Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory observes Earth from space to study science and climate, as well as support disaster response. In the future, these imagery interpretation techniques could be used on spacecraft to help with disaster recovery.
Perhaps the most interesting experiment that SBC-2 completed was the one involving 3-D printing, which is a key area of interest for humans and astronauts as they prepare to travel beyond low Earth orbit. A modeling software was successfully tested on SBC-2 as part of this experiment.
Developed by a group at Cornell University, this software can simulate 3D printing of metal parts and even predict any failure and deformation that may result when printing in the harsh condition of space, the news release explains. The successful testing of this software on SBC-2, validated that it can be used in space to digitally simulate a part and understand how it will perform in reality.