Science & Technology

Researchers are figuring out how to pack a supercomputer into a nanosatellite

Putting a supercomputer in a package that’s roughly the size of a loaf of bread is one thing. Making sure the supercomputer is radiation-hardened to survive the harsh conditions of space is quite another.

A team headquartered at the University of Pittsburgh is trying to do both, for an experiment that’s backed by the Department of Defense, NASA and the National Science Foundation.

“Computer engineering for space is the ultimate challenge,” Pitt engineering professor Alan George, founder of Pitt’s NSF Center for Space, High-Performance and Resilient Computing, or SHREC, said in a news release.

Last month, the experimental package was shipped from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland to Johnson Space Center in Texas, to undergo final preparations for its trip to the International Space Station next year in a SpaceX Dragon capsule.

The payload has an unwieldy name: Space Test Program-Houston 6 / Spacecraft Supercomputing for Image and Video Processing, or STP-H6/SSIVP. But it’s designed for a relatively simple function: taking high-resolution pictures of Earth from the space station’s exterior with its dual cameras.

The key is to see how well STP-H6’s circuitry processes the images amid the exposure to space radiation, and how well it sheds the heat generated by the electronics. The device’s fault-tolerant hybrid system makes use of five flight-qualified computer cards that are linked together, plus a smart module that will run a power converter sub-experiment.

This experiment builds on the experience gained with STP-H5, a space computer experiment that was sent to the space station last year.

“After one year in space, the H5 system is proving highly successful in the harsh environment of space, and researchers are using it as a sandbox for a growing list of experiments uploaded from the Pitt campus,” George said. “When a new technology is deployed in space, the first and biggest question is whether it will operate well there, and ours continues to impress.”

George and the SHREC team collaborated with the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering to build H6. Engineering professors Dave Schmidt and Matthew Barry played lead roles in the development of the device’s space-worthy chassis.

“Dr. Schmidt worked on mechanical design and validation of the system so it fit the new additions to the H6, and I worked thermal modeling so the system had the capacity to dissipate heat from the electronics within,” Barry said. “An excellent group of volunteer students were fully engaged and committed to make sure the project succeeded.”

STP-H6’s computer system is nearly three times more powerful than H5, meriting supercomputer status. But it won’t be the only supercomputer on the space station.

A commercial off-the-shelf computer system built by Hewlett Packard Enterprise, known as the Spaceborne Computer, was sent to the space station last year for testing. It recorded processing speeds in excess of a teraflop last September.

That 124-pound rig was installed in a rack on the interior of the space station. The roughly 9.5-pound STP-H6 experiment, in contrast, is meant to blaze a trail for supercomputers that can fit in a CubeSat.

“Space computing has become a principal challenge in all spacecraft, since remote sensing and autonomous operation are the main purposes of spacecraft — and both demand high-performance computing,” George said.

Smarter, smaller spacecraft are likely to dominate orbital operations in the years ahead. And if the trend toward miniaturization in electronics and propulsion continues to hold true, the small-sat revolution has a good chance of spreading to the rest of the solar system and beyond.

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