The New Space Age: IBM Develops A Unique, Custom Edge Computing Solution in Space

4 min read

In today’s world, with the proliferation of sensors, devices and wireless networks, data is being produced at an astronomical rate.

To deal with latency (requirements for real-time access to data) and bandwidth (large amounts of data being produced), a paradigm shift to edge computing is needed. Edge computing takes data processing closer to where the data is being produced to get near-real-time results and derive value from quickly acting on the data. 

I see IBM’s vision for the International Space Station (ISS) as an edge computing location in orbit, where we will have the ability to process data being produced by imaging sensors and a variety of other experiments running on the ISS.

A successful end-to-end demonstration using the IBM Cloud on Earth and Red Hat CodeReady Containers and the HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 on the ISS in orbit will further validate and push the concept of widespread edge computing in space toward reality. The results of this project will also help determine and expedite the next steps for sending enhanced, state-of-the-art compute, storage and network systems to the ISS and beyond.

Edge computing in space is one of the focus areas of IBM's space innovation vision. As more and more satellites and space crafts are launched and perform tasks like Earth observation, the need to perform computation at the edge “in space” will arise.

Video produced by Matthew Reichman (IBM Space Group).

IBM’s edge collaboration in space

Through our joint collaboration with the HPE Spaceborne Computer-2, ISS National Lab, NASA’s DNA sequencing and UCSC, we provided a custom edge computing solution for the DNA sequencing happening on the ISS on HPE's Spaceborne Computer-2.

The HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 payload is currently scheduled to launch into orbit on February 20, 2021. It will be the 15th Northrop Grumman Resupply Mission to Space Station (NG-15), launching from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) Pad 0A on Wallops Island, Virginia, on the Antares rocket. Further details about the mission can be found here.

The International Space Station is a unique space laboratory in orbit around the Earth, built through a collaboration between several nations. The DNA research being performed currently on ISS will play a key role in future missions in space going to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

The DNA sequencing project called Genes in Space-3 aboard the International Space Station (ISS) is used for identifying microbes on ISS using a MinION biomolecule sequencer device. This research will help us identify microbes in-flight for future missions and as we prepare for the Artemis missions and more. Results from each run are downlinked to the ground, and it takes weeks to get into the hands of the researcher. It then requires further analysis for base calling, alignment and post-processing to get results. This whole process can take up to several weeks.

How IBM developed the custom solution for edge computing in space

IBM is helping eliminate the need to move the massive data being produced on the ISS by the DNA Sequencing project by presenting containerized analytical code where the data is being produced. By leveraging the local compute to be available on ISS, we are reducing the dependence on Earth and the time to get results. The custom solution utilizes Red Hat CodeReady Containers, a single-node OpenShift cluster. This solution connects back on the ground with IBM Cloud, where researchers will develop, test and make their code ready to be pushed to the ISS. The solution will not only help expedite the research being performed on the ISS, but will also open doors for many new explorations on the ISS and future missions in space.

A ground-based solution on IBM Cloud will permit users to submit jobs, via a VPN connection, to the HPE ground systems that communicate securely with the HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 systems on the ISS, where Red Hat CodeReady Containers are installed. 

Upon submission — and after ground validation — the user’s containerized code will be pushed to the ISS for execution. Results of the edge analysis of the user’s ISS experimental data will be available on ISS and also relayed back via a messaging queue to the ground. Each job execution will be on-demand, thereby optimizing use of the IBM and HPE system resources.

The first demonstration of this edge analysis capability will be performed with data collected using the MinION DNA sequencer on the ISS. The NASA JSC Microbiology Laboratory (NML) is interested in initially testing the IBM/HPE system’s ability to analyze environmental microbial DNA obtained from ISS surfaces and potentially potable water samples.  

This solution will significantly reduce the time it takes for ISS researchers to analyze data from their on-orbit experiments for the DNA Sequencing project. The demonstration of edge computation on the ISS will open the possibilities for expanding the use of this technique on future satellites or space stations, particularly in preparation for deep-space exploration.

As future missions are planned to locations beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO) — such as the Artemis program “going back to the moon” — much longer network latency associated with data transmission to Earth necessitates having in-orbit edge computing capability. This project is, therefore, of strategic interest to NASA.

We are excited to continue our work advancing edge computing in space and collaborating with our partners.

Mark R. Fernandez, Ph.D., Principal Investigator, Spaceborne Computer-2, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), states, “On Earth, the cloud is used for computer processing when local capacity has exceeded or when extreme computing is needed, but it is also used for the development and testing of programs that will eventually be used elsewhere. I am thrilled about the collaboration between HPE, the ISS-NL, IBM, NASA and UCSC in the advanced development of DNA sequence processing capabilities using Earth-based clouds. This capability will be delivered as containers to the “edge of the edge” on the ISS. Spaceborne Computer-2, which is built on the HPE Edgeline Converged Edge system that is purposely engineered for harsh edge environments, will enable edge computing in space to process DNA sequence data collected in orbit. Our collaboration will help deliver the processed DNA results back to researchers on Earth much faster than it has traditionally taken to merely download that very large raw data. This synergistic cloud-edge workflow will advance research and accelerate our return to the Moon and our missions to Mars.”

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