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HPE-Microsoft supercomputing collaboration on ISS speeds research into space travel health impacts

Several months on from the deployment of a microwave-sized supercomputer on the International Space Station, details of the research it's powering have started to emerge

The International Space Station (ISS) has confirmed it is using its HPE-powered Spaceborne Supercomputer-2 appliance to assess the long-term health impacts of space travel on astronauts. 

The HPE edge computing device has been aboard the ISS since February 2021, and was deployed to make it possible for researchers to use artificial intelligence (AI) to progress efforts to launch a manned mission to Mars.

As detailed by Computer Weekly at the time of its launch, the microwave-sized device is built around HPE’s Edgeline EL4000 converged edge computing devices and one of its ProLiant DL360 Gen110 appliances, and is set to run on the ISS for the next two to three years.

The setup is designed to ingest data from a range of sources, including satellites and cameras, for processing in real time, and is also equipped with graphic processing units (GPUs) so it can handle compute-intensive AI and machine learning workloads.

HPE has also partnered with Microsoft so that – as and when needed – it can use the burst capacity of the Azure cloud to handle computationally heavy workloads too.

The “cloud bursting” characteristic of the supercomputer’s design has been put to use during an experiment designed to gauge how long-term exposure to radiation can affect the health of astronauts, Microsoft confirmed in a blog post.

“The effects on a human body of lengthy sojourns in space aren’t fully known, making technology that allows frequent monitoring of changes over time especially important,” the company said.

To that end, astronauts participating in that experiment download their genomes and use the supercomputer to check their genetic code for developing abnormalities.

“Those [genomes] then get compared to the National Institute for Health’s database to find out whether there are any new mutations, and if those are benign and the mission can continue, or if they’re ones linked to cancer that may require immediate care back on Earth,” the blog post continued. “It’s the ultimate test of telemedicine that’s being eyed for remote locations around the world as well.”

As essential as this work is, it also generates huge amounts of data and requires large amounts of processing power, which is provided by Azure.

“Sequencing a single human genome, about six billion characters, generates about 200 gigabytes of raw data, and the Spaceborne Computer-2 is only allotted two hours of communication bandwidth a week for transmitting data to Earth, with a maximum download speed of 250 kilobytes per second,” said Microsoft.

“That’s less than 2 gigabytes a week – not even enough to download a Netflix movie – meaning it would take two years to transmit just one genomic dataset.”

To side-step this, the supercomputer scours the genome data onboard the ISS for anomalies that require further investigation and sends just those segments down to the Azure cloud for further analysis.

“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 fibreoptic cables connecting Azure datacentres scattered throughout 65 regions around the globe.”

The supercomputer has been used to carry out four experiments to date, Microsoft confirmed, with other projects including one designed to analyse crops grown onboard the ISS to see how they fare trying to grow in a zero-gravity environment.

And that fact these experiments are being carried out using “off-the-shelf” technologies from the likes of HPE and Microsoft is part of a broader trend that is contributing towards space travel and experimentation becoming increasingly accessible to more people, the company said.

“Space is going through a major transformation period,” said Steve Kitay, who heads up the Azure Space division at Microsoft. “It 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 of space that’s opening up new opportunities for many more actors.”

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