When people think of NASA and its accomplishments over the last five decades, they think of the Saturn V rockets taking astronauts into space and to the moon, or the Kepler space telescope missions sending back to the world beautiful and ominous pictures of the universe around us; but what most people don’t think of is the awesome computing power NASA has. When people think of NASA on Mars they don’t realize the awesome capabilities that NASA’s robotics carry. It is these very things that most people do not realize about NASA that made all these achievements possible and makes current and future projects possible. NASA’s flagship computer program, which is known as the High-End Computing Capabilities Program or HECC has an impressive mission statement that states its goal is “to accelerate and enhance NASA’s mission of space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research by continually ensuring optimal use of the most high-end computing environment in the world.” (Dunbar, High-End Computing Capability) NASA’s supercomputing and robotic capabilities such as the Quantum Computer Project, robotic programs, HECC program, or the Pleiades supercomputer allow some of the greatest minds in NASA and possibly the world to conduct simulations, models and projects that are necessary to make NASA’s current and future missions feasible.
The heart of NASA’s HECC which is stationed in the Ames Research Facility in Silicon Valley, California. This state of the art facility holds some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world with four active currently. They are Pleiades, Electra, Endeavor, and Merope. These computers are extremely powerful, but none more powerful than the Pleiades supercomputer, which when introduced in 2008, tested as third most powerful supercomputer in the world. (NASA’s Pleiades Supercomputer Is Hard at Work for Humanity). This state of the art computer has some impressive features. The complex computer system is made from 161 computer cabinets that contain over eleven thousand individual computer units, often referred to as nodes. (NASA’s Pleiades Supercomputer Is Hard at Work for Humanity). This helps to put into perspective of what a supercomputer is. A supercomputer consists of thousands of individual nodes that work together to create one powerful aggregate computer. This gives Pleiades a total of over 245,000 central processing units or CPUs, enough memory to store 935 terabytes worth of data, and a peak computer performance of 7.24 Petaflops. This stands for floating operations per second. (NASA’s Pleiades Supercomputer Is Hard at Work for Humanity). IBM defines this as “a method of encoding real numbers within the limits of finite precision available on computers.” (Green) Flops allow long number to be processed relatively easy and in a shorter amount of time. All these impressive features are imperative when making extremely complex simulations and calculations. Without these features, NASA would not know much of what the organization knows about space as it does today.
From research in the creation of galaxies, to the mapping of distant galaxies similar to Earth, the Pleiades supercomputer plays a significant role. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey or SDSS is a project that uses state of the art observatories that takes thousands of extremely detailed and colorful 3-D pictures of space that are combined to form a map which contain over 930,000 galaxies. (Sloan Digital Sky Survey). This survey creates copious amounts of data of the universe, but what is done with this data? Dr. Risa Wechsler, a physics professor from Stanford University has brought together a team to answer this question. Dr. Wechsler’s interests are to solve the way in which the universe is structured, to understand galaxy formation, and to find how these can develop a sense of the fundamental forces of the universe. (Hemsoth).
Dr. Wechsler and her team used the data collected from the survey to find a comparison of the luminosity of the hundreds of thousands of galaxies to that of the Milky Way. The data used in her project consisted of nearly a quarter of the seeable sky and was far too much information for a team, much less one human to work through, but would be a perfect match for the Pleiades supercomputer. The team took all the information that was needed from the survey and downloaded onto the supercomputer. Her team used a random review method to comb through the pictures for evidence of galaxies that had a similar luminosity to that of the Milky Way galaxy and to enhance such photos for fainter or clustered galaxies. (Hemsoth). To run this massive simulation, it would take The Pleiades supercomputer an estimated 6.5 million CPU hours. This would make it the largest project Pleiades has done in terms of number of particles; there were eight billion particles that were simulated. (Hemsoth). Even with Supercomputers available, the project runs into problems with storage. This is a persistent problem for the project and no solution is currently available. Until a solution arises, her goals may not be reached. This shows the processing power necessary to undertake such unfathomable simulations and how Pleiades has helped NASA find thousands of galaxies that are comparable to the Milky Way and build on the map of the vast universe.
NASA’s Quantum Computer Project
The Quantum Computer Project is accelerating computing for NASA. Quantum computing is a relatively new field of computers but shows a great protentional to be utilized by NASA. NASA states that its goal with the project is “to demonstrate the Quantum computers and Quantum algorithms could someday dramatically improve the agency’s ability to solve challenging computational problems for missions in aeronautics, Earth and space sciences, and space exploration.” (Quantum Computer Project: Accelerating Advanced Computing for NASA Missions). What makes these computers quantum is that they rely on different phenomena that take place at the quantum level and manipulate millions of quantum bits, often referred to qubits. They allow for the computation of massive amounts of data (Gershon). The two main quantum phenomena that concern these computers are superposition and entanglement. Superposition is the combination of two different states at the same point in time. While entanglement is two particles that combine together and behave as if in a single system; entanglement is considered to be a critical step for speeding up computation using quantum computers. (Gershon). Studies of quantum computing are already being conducted by NASA at the Ames Research Center. The quantum system currently being used is the 2,048 qubit D-wave 2000Q. This system performs quantum annealing which is the process that runs off the quantum effects of tunneling and superposition. (Quantum Computer Project: Accelerating Advanced Computing for NASA Missions) These quantum effects can help perform complex quantum algorithms that can be implemented in NASA mission’s such as advanced diagnosis and fault management systems on the International Space Station, Automated uses of limited resources on future Mars missions, and even automatically optimizing aircraft routes based on weather and air traffic conditions. (Quantum Computer Project: Accelerating Advanced Computing for NASA Missions.) Currently computational limitations exist, as calculations of this magnitude are too difficult for any conventional computer to process in a reasonable timeframe.
The use of Quantum algorithms is essential for future computer projects of NASA. Quantum heuristic algorithms which are complex calculations prove important to solving traditionally challenging situations of optimization problems that can be found at the center of many of the organization’s missions. (NASA’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) This is an incentive for NASA to develop more efficient quantum hardware that can support these algorithms. As these more powerful quantum computers become more reliable, NASA can provide them to an array of applications. One important target application for NASA’s quantum research team is related to the NASA Kepler mission’s search for planets that are comparable to Earth. This is done by using the heuristic algorithms that have the task of identifying long distant transit signals of planets orbiting their home star. This shows that some planets are so small or so far away from earth that they cannot be discovered with current computational limitations. As quantum computers become more powerful, the use of these computers to search through all of the abundant amounts of data collected from Kepler for transiting planets of almost 150,000 galaxies that can be viewed from the Kepler spacecraft has the potential to provide a new, more efficient method of discovering unknown similar planets from the abyss of space (NASA’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory).
Another useful application for Quantum algorithms is metrology. Metrology focuses on the measurements of physical constants ranging from distance to gravitational field detection. This is significant to NASA as this research has useful applications in future sensors and telescopes that will propel future spacecraft in NASA missions. (NASA’s Quantum Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) This relates to how quantum metrology will be focused on the sensitive measurements of space, and as these computers become more powerful, these measurements more sensitive; this will lead to greater precision among these computers and telescopes. It is evident as to why NASA would want to implement such research to enhance future projects. These extensive studies and the mission statement of the project reflect how Quantum computers will allow NASA to solve increasingly challenging problems and allow for more ambitious missions and simulations in the future, as well as to develop more productive software to sustain these missions. It may even find a planet similar to Earth one day.
NASA Robotic capabilities
The advancement in NASA’s robotics will greatly help future space missions. As NASA plans ambitious space missions, it needs the machine power to sustain such missions. Robotics is a key component in the development of these cutting-edge technologies. One of these concepts is the next rover that will be sent to Mars in 2020. A lot is known about Earth’s neighboring planet Mars, but there is a far greater amount that is still unknown about it. The rover scheduled next to go to Mars will conduct groundbreaking studies, explore the planet, and take a collection of soil and rock samples that be returned to Earth. This rover will also carry sophisticated instruments to conduct these investigations. The advanced instruments that will be included on the rover will be a camera system equipped with stereoscopic imaging capabilities that will allow for the determination of composition of Martian soil, a similar camera imaging system that will allow for further analysis of organic compounds, sensors that can give basic measurements of Mars’s climate, and radar that will penetrate the ground to give an image of the subsurface of the red planet. (Beutel) These experiments can provide valuable information on the composition of the planet and its atmosphere. This will help NASA researchers prepare for a successful manned mission to the planet and how to use the resources available to sustain life on Mars. NASA administrator, Charles Bolden has even stated that “Curiosity was an iconic example of how our robotic scientific explorers are paving the way for humans to pioneer Mars and beyond, Mars exploration will be this generation’s legacy, and the Mars 2020 rover will be another critical step on humans’ journey to the Red Planet.” (Beutel) This reflects how crucial these robotic rovers are to the exploration and studies of Mars.
NASA continues to search for new innovative ways for the use of its technology. One of NASA’s future experiments is the use of a new more efficient space suit, known as the BioBot. While it is vitally important that astronaut’s conditions are monitored and provide life support functions, bulky suits were always a problem that interfered with mobility and limited exploration. NASA’s solution to this is a suit that is attached with a moving robotic system that will provide life support functions and monitor the critical stats of the astronauts. (Hall, Biobot: Innovative Offloading of Astronauts)
Another innovative use of the robotics would be the concept of using NASA’s computer and robotic technology for the detection of asteroids. This is NASA’s concept of the Meteoroid impact detection for exploration of asteroids or MIDEA. This idea would use NASA satellites and computers to scan and determine the composition of the asteroids for any useful recourses within it. Then a robotic meteoroid would be used to impact the asteroid and extract the resources from the asteroid itself. (Hall, Meteoroid Impact Detection for Exploration of Asteroids) These experiments may seem farfetched, but they are the aspirations of some of the brightest minds in NASA. As NASA’s technology continues to evolve, these futuristic concepts can be implemented.
NASA has come a long way since the days of the Apollo missions and the moon landing. Its computing capabilities continue to grow more powerful at an impressive rate, solving even more complex calculations. Its research and development into quantum computers will develop more productive hardware or may even find a planet similar to Earth one day. Its robotics become more dependable and more efficient in the tasks that they are designed to do. NASA’s technological power will continue to grow and as it grows, it will play an ever increasingly significant role in the organization’s current and future missions of exploration and experimentation of this vast universe. After all, it will take more than the fuel in the rockets to propel humanity into space and sustain life there, it will take advanced computational power and the human ingenuity behind it.
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AUTHOR BIO – Matt LaBar
I have always loved science and learning about it. This is why find it interesting to keep up with NASA’s exciting projects. Most people don’t consider how involved NASA is with computer science. This is why I decided to take the opportunity to learn about this intriguing topic.