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Pitt students building one of the most powerful computers to go into space

April 8, 2018
A top view of a model of the space computer built by University of Pittsburgh's Space, High-performance, and Resilient Computing lab. The real computer, which is at NASA being prepped for a launch next year, also has the Pitt logo on its top plate. (Photo by Aaron Aupperlee)
A top view of a model of the space computer built by University of Pittsburgh's Space, High-performance, and Resilient Computing lab. The real computer, which is at NASA being prepped for a launch next year, also has the Pitt logo on its top plate. (Photo by Aaron Aupperlee)

One of the fastest space computers ever launched into orbit will head to the International Space Station next year.

It has the University of Pittsburgh written all over it. Well, at least on the top of it.

A team of Pitt students at the Center for Space, High-performance, and Resilient Computing built a computer that will be among the fastest and most powerful ever designed to operate in space.

“We’re super pumped about it,” said Christopher Wilson, manager of the lab in Schenley Place in Oakland.

The computer, which has the script Pitt logo stamped into its box, has two high-definition cameras and can transmit images to Earth. Its processors can be reconfigured from Earth to handle nearly any computing or processing experiment, Wilson said.

Faster and more powerful computers are needed in space to process the large amount of data collected and to allow computers to make decisions on their own, said Alan George, the founder of the lab known as SHREC (which is pronounced like the name of the green cartoon ogre).

It takes a long time to beam data between space and Earth. Download speeds for the SHREC team are slower than dial-up, Wilson said.

The lab’s computer can start to process videos, images or information in space, compressing files, discarding unneeded images and selecting only relevant data in order to cut back on the amount of information sent to Earth. George said space computers eventually won’t have to send back data but instead will convey only the answers researchers are seeking.

“The ultimate compression is answers,” George said. “But to get answers, you have to compute the solution where the data is gathered in space.”

George founded the lab at the University of Florida and brought the operation and more than a dozen graduate students to Pitt about 18 months ago when Pitt hired him to head the electrical and computer engineering department at the Swanson School of Engineering. The lab is funded by the National Science Foundation and works with NASA, top aerospace companies and space agencies around the world. It is the first step toward a space center that George wants to build at Pitt.

The lab will launch its second computer system aboard a SpaceX rocket in February 2019. It will be attached to the outside of the International Space Station.

The computer is about a foot tall and 4 inches deep and wide. Inside are five space processors designed and built by students in the lab. The processors — a mix of speciality space components and high-end commercial components — make up the bulk of the technological advancements in the systems.

The lab last year launched a similar computer, but with fewer processors, to the International Space Station.

Designing a computer for space is tough work, George said. Not only do you have to work with limits on size, weight, power and cost, but you also have to design a system that can withstand the vacuum of space, big temperature swings, the vibration of liftoff and the constant pummeling of radiation.

“Everything you would normally do to design a computer system on the ground doesn’t have to worry about those issues,” George said.

Typical space computers are made of radiation-resistant components built to withstand the rigors of space. But they often lack power and are slow, heavy and expensive. Commercially available components offer benefits in speed, performance, weight and cost but can’t cut it in space.

The team at SHREC has designed a system that uses both types of technology.

“We kind of hit a nice sweet spot of performance and reliability,” said Sebastian Sabogal, a grad student in the lab.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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