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Speeding Up Space Exploration with Edge Computing

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The vast stretches of outer space may have been a fascination for poets and star gazers for centuries —but they can be a nightmare when setting up a reliable IT and communications system. Of course scientists have been working on the latest technologies for decades to drive innovation in space and especially in recent years, we see space exploration is getting ever more technologically advanced.

One such technology innovations comes from Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) that has recently announced it is enabling real-time data processing with advanced commercial edge computing in space, a technique that allows sensor data to be processed by computers in the same place where it was collected, rather than having to travel back to a central server for cataloging and analysis.

The company has said that using its  Spaceborne Computer-2, (SBC-2), an edge-computing system, astronauts and researchers at International Space Station (ISS) will be able to process data at the edge and speed time-to-insight from months to minutes on various experiments. That includes, processing medical imaging and DNA sequencing to unlocking key insights from volumes of remote sensors and satellites.

edgeSpaceborne Computer-2 will offer twice as much compute speed with purpose-built edge computing capabilities powered by the HPE Edgeline Converged Edge system and HPE ProLiant server. It is equipped with GPU capabilities to support specific projects using AI and machine learning techniques. Like, it can efficiently process image-intensive data requiring higher image resolution such as shots of polar ice caps on earth or medical x-rays.

“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,” said Dr. Mark Fernandez, solution architect, Converged Edge Systems at HPE, and principal investigator for Spaceborne Computer-2.

HPE is delivering the same edge computing technologies targeted for harsh, remote environments on earth such as oil and gas refineries, manufacturing plants or on defense missions, to space. Some of the experiments that this new venture will empower include modeling dust storms on Earth, medical imaging using ultrasound, and analyzing lightning strike patterns.

“Edge computing provides core capabilities for unique sites that have limited or no connectivity, giving them the power to process and analyze data locally and make critical decisions quickly. With HPE Edgeline, we deliver solutions that are purposely engineered for harsh environments,” said Shelly Anello, General Manager, Converged Edge Systems at HPE.

Several space efforts now use edge computing, to enhance communications between Earth and the cosmos. For space-based systems, edge computing can save both time and energy, believe IBM researchers.

“If we can speed up communication with our far-flung space explorers, it will accelerate how much we can learn and discover,” Naeem Altaf, an IBM distinguished engineer and CTO of its Space Tech team, said in its official blog.

“Using edge, critical data can be analyzed in hours instead of days,” Altaf said.

For example, sensor-equipped swarms of nanosatellites can use edge systems to process the data seamlessly. These satellite swarms, which fly about 250 to 370 miles above the Earth’s surface, can be clustered and organized to support important missions in the study of weather, climate science, national security and disaster response. In other words, edge computing has a great potential on the International Space Station, the in-flight science laboratory designed to help humans better understand what it’s like living and working in space.

It’s the same reason edge computing has already made a big mark in the enterprise as Gartner reported that by 2022, half of all data will be created and processed outside a traditional centralized data center or a cloud network.

SBC-2 is scheduled to launch into orbit on the 15th Northrop Grumman Resupply Mission to Space Station (NG-15) on February 20 and will be available for use on the International Space Station for the next 2-3 years. The NG-15 spacecraft has been named “SS Katherine Johnson” in honor of Katherine Johnson, a black NASA mathematician who was critical to the early success of the space program.

“We are honored to make edge computing in space possible and through our longstanding partnerships with NASA and the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, we are looking forward to powering new, exciting research opportunities to make breakthrough discoveries for humanity,” he added.

Steven Carlini, Vice President of Innovation and Data Center for Schneider Electric believes the new space age holds great edge potential.

“These low orbiting satellite deployments have the potential to propel the digital transformation of the world. They open up tremendous opportunities to bring futuristic technologies to fruition with the combination of high-speed wireless communication and untethered edge computing,” he said in a recent article.

Terrestrial business innovations will continue to drive space exploration for years to come. Cloud, edge computing and blockchain are enhancing missions to the International Space Station and beyond. Of course, we are still a long way off before developing fully autonomous systems and making them accessible for scientists, but as Carl Sagan, the popular astronomer, noted, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

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Sohini Bagchi
Sohini Bagchi is Editor at CXOToday, a published author and a storyteller. She can be reached at sohini.bagchi@trivone.com