SINGAPORE: When a SpaceX rocket docks at the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday (Aug 16), it will deliver, among other items, a supercomputer billed as the most powerful ever sent into orbit.
The supercomputer could one day help crew operate extended missions into deep space - and what many may not know is that the man behind the machine is a Singaporean, Dr Goh Eng Lim.
It was a big day for the Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) executive, when the souped-up supercomputer - dubbed the Spaceborne Computer – was launched from Cape Canaveral in a SpaceX-12 rocket shortly after noon on Monday, Florida time.
Computers sent into space tend not only to be expensive, but also generations behind the most advanced, limited and bulky versions. The computers are made pricier by the need to “harden” them to withstand the tough conditions in space, as well as be approved by authorities such as NASA.
Dr Goh's supercomputer, a joint project by HPE and the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), aims to solve this problem.
In an interview with Channel NewsAsia on Monday, ahead of the launch, Dr Goh said he sent an application to NASA in December 2014 to test his hypothesis. It was accepted “within weeks”.
Essentially, the experiment hopes to address the pain points mentioned above. First, space explorers need the latest computing gear when they travel to space, but currently, it takes at least five years before a computer is "hardened" and approved by NASA. This means these systems are at least three generations behind the latest iteration when they are sent into space, Dr Goh explained.
Secondly, the computers’ costs are ramped up because of the hardening process. To address this, the engineer said he had been working on the idea of allowing computers to “self-heal”. Instead of using the computers to service our needs all the time, he wanted to keep some computing cycles for the computer to assess its own state and make the necessary adjustments for optimal performance.
Another HPE executive, Mr Alain Andreoli, said in a blog post last Saturday that its software would manage real-time "throttling of the computer systems based on current conditions and can mitigate environmentally induced errors". Without traditional ruggedising, its computer system passed at least 146 safety tests and certifications to get NASA's nod for space travel, he wrote.
Thirdly, the computers currently sent to space today are application-specific, which means they are to be used only for certain tasks. The Spaceborne Computer, on the other hand, is based on an open-source Linux operating system, and this allows astronauts to add applications when needed – “something like an iPhone”, said Dr Goh, who is chief technology officer of SGI, which was acquired by HPE last November.
SUPPLYING THE SPACE RACE
The year-long experiment will assess how the software-hardened supercomputer does in space, and what the rate of degradation is. This, Dr Goh said, is the first step towards sending computers as part of journeys deeper into space and closer to Mars, which in turn would reduce the latency in communicating with Earth.
"This research helps scientists identify ways of using software to protect ISS computers without expensive, time-consuming or bulky protective shielding," the NASA documentation added.
He said the information collected would be used to enhance the reliability and resilience of HPE’s line of products in the future, which should be a boon for organisations as more and more of their operational needs depend on having their IT systems up and running at all times.
Asked why he was involved in this apparent "moonshot", Dr Goh said that while space exploration and travel is a small market today, it could change in the near future, with efforts by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to make space travel as commonplace as air travel.
“We have to start somewhere, and we want to be the supplier of computers for these space travel companies, so why not now?”
SOLID GROUNDING FROM SINGAPORE
Yet, Dr Goh said he remains indebted to the solid grounding he received as a student in Singapore. The first-class honours degree holder in mechanical engineering from Birmingham University and PhD holder in parallel architectures and computer graphics credited his Secondary 3 and junior college mathematics education, in particular, for his work with NASA.
This is because partial differential equation kept cropping up in his work with NASA, and the basis of this can be found in the calculus syllabus that was taught during those years, he explained.
“In fact, I was looking through my A-Level math books to double-check on my calculations (ahead of the launch),” Dr Goh quipped.
He added that it was not so much that he remembers how to do such equations from school – “I’ve forgotten parts of it” – but that it gave him confidence that he would pick up on things he had already learned when he was younger.
So what does he think of Singapore’s efforts to grow the local engineering talent pool, and for Singaporeans to make a mark on the world stage?
Dr Goh said while he has been away from the country for much of the past 17 years, his observation has been that Singapore “always tries to do the best with what it can afford to”, citing the “outstanding” secondary school and junior college education here.
He also pointed out that while the local universities miss out on plugging in to the wider developer, investor and business networks that are present in places such as Silicon Valley, the government has done the next best thing, which was to bring these elements to Singapore.
The engineer, who was invited by renowned physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking to introduce Nobel Laureate in Physics Saul Perlmutter at his 70th birthday symposium in 2012, said there are people with “quality” in Singapore who could make a difference on a global stage, and perhaps one day, be awarded the Nobel Prize.
But in order for that to happen, “lots of failures” need to take place. Assuming that you need a million failures before one succeeds in Singapore, Dr Goh said that there were perhaps only about 300,000 such instances right now.
“A mindset shift is needed, and it is changing (in Singapore) already."