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Spaceborne Computer
HPE’s Spaceborne Computer is installed on the International Space Station. (HPE Photo)

The most powerful computer ever sent into space proved its mettle this month by registering a processing speed in excess of a trillion floating-point calculations per second, a measure that’s known as a teraflop.

“HPE’s Spaceborne Computer is the first high-performance commercial off-the-shelf computer system to run one teraflop at the International Space Station,” Mark Fernandez, Americas HPC technology officer at Hewlett Packard Enterprise and co-principal investigator for the project, said today in a blog post.

The Spaceborne Computer project, pioneered by NASA and HPE, will put off-the-shelf equipment through its paces over the next year to study how well it stands up to the space environment.

Most of the computers used in space have to incorporate hardware-based modifications to ensure reliability amid the radiation storms that periodically sweep through outer space. In contrast, the Spaceborne Computer relies on a software approach that incorporates real-time throttling of system operations, based on current conditions.

The heart of the 124-pound computer system is a set of HPE high-density Apollo 40 servers with a high-speed HPC interconnect, running on the open-source Linux system.

The hardware was flown up to the station last month inside a robotic SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule, but it wasn’t fully installed and initialized until last week. Part of the delay was due to Hurricane Harvey’s impact on NASA mission operations in Houston.

Fernandez said he and his colleagues were “ecstatic” over the results of the initial tests, which involved running through computer through a High Performance LINPACK benchmarking operation, and then a set of High Performance Conjugate Gradients. Those are the standard tests used to determine Top500’s global ranking of supercomputer processing speed.

One trillion calculations per second may sound impressive, but that merely matches what the best supercomputers could do back in 1996.

It takes more than 430 trillion calculations per second, or 430 teraflops, to make it to the bottom of the latest Top500 list. And future space computers will have to up their game considerably to reach the top.

The current world record is held by China’s National Supercomputing Center in Wuxi, thanks to the Sunway TaihuLight supercomputer’s 93,014-teraflop performance. America’s best supercomputer (No. 4 on the global list) is the Titan, which was manufactured by Seattle-based Cray for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and has been benchmarked at 17,590 teraflops.

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