Computers have been woefully basic and uncomplicated in all space missions humans have ever attempted. Understandably, this is to build electronics that are adequately shielded against cosmic radiation. Our advanced computers down on Earth would simply be fried up there (eventually), and would be constantly susceptible to bit flip bugs.
Someday, however, we will eventually need powerful computers to guide our future space exploits. Thus, this new plan is currently in development to actually launch a supercomputer to the International Space Station (ISS) very soon.
Radiation versus High-Spec Hardware
Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE), along with the cooperation of NASA, have proposed an experiment which will test and use commercial standard computers aboard the ISS. The purpose of this experiment is to determine how exactly would regular computers last in the harsher environment of outer space, how its performance will be affected over time under such extended exposures.
To put it simply, HPE wants to install commercial off-the shelf (COTS) computers aboard a space station just to see how it would hold out against cosmic radiation. The computer won’t just be your average ISS-optimized Thinkpad, as it would be a 1-teraflop unit about the size of small drawer. It is essentially a supercomputer, at least compared to every other computer that has been sent to space so far. Radiation shielding would, needless to say, be non-existent.
HPE and NASA hope to collect very important data for this experiment. The success or failure of this endeavor will pretty much determine the design course of advanced computers that will be built for future space missions.
Mission Control, at your Fingertips
While this news may not herald the eventual deployment of something as advanced as HAL 9000, this will be a huge stepping stone in our mastery of space exploration. Specially built supercomputers, with all the design knowledge of this experiment collated and utilized, will most likely be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands more advanced than what the Apollo astronauts could have ever used.
Thus, the experiment branches out to have two very crucial advantages: self-reliance, and lesser specialization. If we are to explore space beyond the moon, we must be able to determine technical decisions on our own, without having to rely on some mission control back on Earth. Also, if we are to send tourists and similar non-professional personnel, then we should have something that could function as a professional astronaut for them.
A supercomputer onboard our spacecraft heading to Mars or even to the outer Solar System, for example, could help us with this, giving us access to highly complex simulations and computations to aid our real time choices.
As an added bonus, the research actually has some benefits to Earth-based computers as well. Huge bursts of electromagnetic shockwaves are often damaging, even fatal to electronics systems. The data collected from this experiment may perhaps be used to develop solar flare-resistant data centers, so that in the event that our mighty Sun did burp a huge stream towards us, we won’t necessarily have to come back to the Stone Age.