Hewlett Packard Enterprise sent a second-generation Spaceborne Computer to the International Space Station in February. The Spaceborne Computer-2 is linked to Microsoft’s Azure cloud through NASA and HPE ground stations. Credit: NASA

SAN FRANCISCO – After completing the first round of experiments on the International Space Station’s second-generation Spaceborne Computer, Hewlett Packard Enterprises and Microsoft executives say they are clearly demonstrating the value of processing data in orbit and funneling it into the cloud.

“We absolutely see the need for compute at the edge in space,” Mark Fernandez, HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 principal investigator, told SpaceNews. “When we can accelerate data to insight, we can accelerate the benefits to mankind.”

Four experiments focused on quantum computing, security, healthcare and life sciences have been conducted with the assistance of the Spaceborne Computer-2, which has been on the space station since February. Another 29 experiments are in the pipeline, but more could be added during the Spaceborne Computer-2 experiment, which is scheduled to run for two to three years.

Historically, on-orbit processing has been a challenge. Hardware and software custom-built for spacecraft computers tended to offer far lower processing speeds and less memory than computers manufactured for terrestrial applications.

Traditionally, bandwidth to transmit data from space to the ground was another constraint, making it hard to run algorithms in space and send the resulting data to the ground.

With the Spaceborne Computer-2 linked to Azure, “you can compute the results in orbit,” said Tom Keane, Microsoft Azure corporate vice president.

HPE is eager to prove that conventional supercomputers with open-source software can serve a variety of space-related customers including principal investigators conducting space station research.

“It’s the same technology and tools a developer would use,” Fernandez said. “The hardware and software are right off the factory floor.”

One of the experiments completed on the Spaceborne Computer-2 involved genomics. To understand the impact of spaceflight on astronauts, principal investigators gathered and processed data on the Spaceborne Computer-2 before sending them to Microsoft’s Azure cloud to compare them with public datasets.

Without a space-based supercomputer linked to the cloud, investigators may have waited days, weeks or months to download the genomics data. By processing them on the Spaceborne Computer-2 linked to Azure, we were able to get them down in minutes, Fernandez said.

Through the Spaceborne Computer-2 program, HPE and Microsoft want to demonstrate the utility of supercomputers linked to the cloud not only for space but also for remote terrestrial applications.

“I always tell my colleagues that if we can prove it in space, we can do it on Earth,” Fernandez said.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...