SpaceX to launch supercomputer to International Space Station

SpaceX to launch supercomputer to International Space Station
Posted at 11:42 AM, Aug 14, 2017

A SpaceX rocket is ready to deliver one of the most high-tech payloads ever to the International Space Station.

The launch is scheduled for 12:31 p.m. ET. on Monday from NASA's Kennedy Space Center is Florida.

It marks the 12th unmanned resupply mission that SpaceX -- the private space exploration company headed by Tesla CEO Elon Musk -- has conducted for NASA since 2012.

Cargo missions are always packed with some interesting payloads -- typically several tons of experiment equipment, food and other provisions.

But Monday's mission will carry something the space station has never seen before: A supercomputer built by Hewlett Packard Enterprise, dubbed the "Spaceborne Computer."

If it works, it could be the most powerful commercial computer ever to operate in space.

Astronauts aboard the space station already have a bunch of devices you'd find at your local electronics store -- including HP laptops.

But a supercomputer is something different. It's a much more powerful piece of hardware that can crunch massive amounts of data and send the results to other computers in just moments.

According to Mark Fernandez, the HPE engineer who is heading up this new experiment, the space-bound supercomputer will have the ability to make one trillion calculations in a single second -- about 30 to 100 times more powerful than your average desktop computer.

Julie Robinson, the chief scientist for NASA's space station program, said if this supercomputer can function in the harsh conditions of space -- it'll be very exciting news for companies down here on earth.

Robinson points out that a huge point of interest for the private sector is taking high-quality satellite images of earth in order to track things like crop growth or oil exploration.

"What's happening is -- just as your TV now has so much more resolution -- the same thing is happening with [satellite imagery]," she said.

But the high-definition images require 200 to 300 times more data, which can clog up the communication pipeline between earth and space. That's where a supercomputer on board the space station would become hugely valuable, Robinson told CNNMoney.

"If you can process the data on board [the space station], you then only need to send down a subset of the data that's actually needed," she said.

Will the supercomputer work?

We'll find out soon enough. After launch on Monday, SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft will detach from the top portion of the rocket. It'll then fire up its own engines and spend about two days traveling through orbital space.

Then, it'll dock with the space station, and the astronauts on board can collect the payload.

Fernandez said HPE has volunteered to have its payload removed last, so it'll be a few days into September by the time the supercomputer makes its way onto the space station and is plugged in.

"If it powers up, that's going to be my first relief. I will be very excited then," Fernandez told CNNMoney.