​​How Computing Is Impacting Space Exploration

We need computing to survive in the harsh space environment and make long-term explorations a reality.

Today’s digital computers have proved pivotal in the ability to help humans advance their goals on Earth and off. Their profound influence has not only improved nearly all aspects of life on Earth but almost every innovation of space technology, including space mechanics, mission control, spacecraft design and data generated by spacecraft. It’s no surprise that the evolution of computer technology noticeably aligns with the growth in space tech innovations.

Of course, we need computing to survive in the harsh space environment and make long-term explorations a reality. However, a major issue is that traveling and sending information back to Earth takes too long. Thankfully, innovations in edge and cloud computing are helping to transform our ability to explore and sustain these deep space missions.

Edge and Cloud Computing

Edge computing, a computing paradigm that brings computation and data storage closer to data sources, can save time and money. Cloud computing, which uses networks of remote sensors online to store, manage and process data, offers on-demand availability of computer system resources without direct management by the user.

In simple terms, these computing tools help give us easy access to data that provides more information and helps us run space exploration more efficiently by making communication faster.

In August 2021, Microsoft Azure Space with Hewlett Packard experimented with edge and cloud computing to create better working processes aboard the International Space Station to the Azure ground station and the National Institute of Health’s database. The goal was to test and process astronauts’ genes quicker when in space. Thanks to the HPE’s Spaceborne Computer 2, which uses edge computing and AI processing, the experiment was successful.

While this fast transfer of data keeps everyone updated on Earth, the benefits of space exploration go far beyond productive and efficient communication. Below are a handful of ways that modern computing impacts space exploration that will improve our chances of survival in deep space.

Research and Monitoring

Better data processing and communication tools can reasonably create more productive research facilities among the stars. Ground control and space vessels can collaborate via better communication and can exchange insights that offer real-time solutions. On top of it all, a faster data transfer can also allow better monitoring of Earth. Data monitoring in real time can allow astronauts to report more detailed findings of any natural disasters or phenomena they view from Earth.

As HPE notes: “Such edge computing capabilities will also accelerate research on problems we face here at home — from the pandemic to climate change. In fact, many expect space to drive a whole new crop of tech innovations: 3D printers, onboard supercomputers, small satellites, servers built for the harsh conditions in space, and even GPS systems for space navigation.”

Astronaut Healthcare

Space travel may be profound, but it has a harsh impact on the human body. HPE cited senior vice president and chief marketing officer for AIDr. Eng Lim Goh, who explained that “the farther astronauts travel away from earth, the more self-reliant they’ll need to be. That means their computer systems will have to process huge amounts of data locally, at the edge, to quickly answer questions and solve problems.”

Bone density loss and changes in genetics are among the many health issues astronauts can face. However, data-tech innovations can help identify health issues and solutions faster. As we develop technologies that allow humans to live on Mars, it will be extremely important for the health and longevity of astronauts. Even better, the biometric data that’s processed from in-space computing systems can allow astronauts to track and monitor their health while in orbit or on deep space explorations.

Space Agriculture

Computing can also sustain life in space in other ways. Data can improve the practice of growing food in zero gravity, a process that has been a challenge for scientists. Still, its success would mean healthier meals for astronauts and fewer supplies and other cargo needed for each trip.

Research from NASA and other space experts shows how humans can overcome the challenges of food insecurity in space with help from artificial oxygen, more stable temperatures and lighting, and the collection and analysis of plant data. Now, astronauts can enjoy fresh produce like lettuce in space. On top of it all, agriculture systems can provide natural air and water filtration for the spacecraft system.

Spaceship Design

Space computing and its data can enable better discoveries surrounding combustion, water purification and engineering. All of the data collected constantly informs the creation of safer, cheaper and more efficient spaceships. Without this inflow of data that spawns innovations, the space industry wouldn’t understand how rockets land back on Earth or how satellite imaging works. The more data we have, the more experts can improve the experience of space travel.

Currently, NASA‘s High Performing Spaceflight Computing project (HPSC) addresses how computing is inefficient in that its technology needs to be configured around the stretch of the mission that requires the most power. While this targets overall mission success, it leads to inefficient resource use over the length of the mission. This project develops technologies that can enhance the computational capacity by 100 times over current spaceflight computers. Newly designed computing chips with multiple processing cores will be bundled with operating software.

Next-Generation Computing

Next-generation data computing for space travel is still under development, so there’s more room for innovations — especially as we focus more intently on traveling throughout our galaxy. Even with improvements on the horizon, the quality of life and work for astronauts has greatly improved since the early days of exploration. We are laying the foundations for computing, and it’s the stepping stone that can help us stay educated, interested and involved in developing a better NewSpace ecosystem so that we have all the processes in place to thrive in the final frontier.

Originally published in Newsweek.