SpaceX CRS-12 launches: Mars supercomputer headed to ISS

SpaceX has aced its latest Dragon launch, with CRS-12 successfully taking off from Cape Canaveral this morning and the Falcon 9 rocket landing back safely. The mission, CRS-12, is SpaceX's twelfth resupply mission to the International Space Station. Among the cargo is a new supercomputer, which it's hoped will pave the way for a successful mission to Mars.

Built by Hewlett Packard Enterprise, the so-called Spaceborne Computer distinguishes itself in part by just how ordinary it is. Rather than the custom-designed, specially-hardened hardware you'd expect for a space mission, HPE has used off-the-shelf components. The goal is to see whether, over the course of a year, they hold up to the tough conditions in space.

That length of time is, not coincidentally, how long it's expected a manned mission to Mars to last. As the distance between Earth and such a spacecraft increased, the latency involved in sending messages between the two would increase as well: potentially up to 40 minutes for a round-trip. That makes the idea of relying on Earth-based processing a dangerous one.

Instead, NASA wants to equip the astronauts with hefty processing power of their own, so that any time-critical scenarios can be crunched without relying on the Earth link. In the case of the Spaceborne Computer, that's an HPE Apollo 40 class computer with a high-speed HPC interconnect, installed into a custom water-cooled enclosure. It's running an open-source Linux OS, which has been modified to deal with the needs of space-farers.

It's not the only experimental cargo, mind. Dragon is also carrying a satellite for the US Army; dubbed Kestrel Eye, it's part of a plan to use microsatellites for near-real-time updates in war zones. Rather than rely on existing satellite infrastructure, so the theory goes, microsatellites like Kestrel Eye could be deployed directly to mission commanders.

Meanwhile, three new NASA experiments are also among the payload. One, backed by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, will look at the possibility of growing protein crystals that might one day be used in treating Parkinson's disease. Another medically-minded experiment will look at whether artificially engineered lung tissue could be grown in space.

Finally, there's the Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) instrument. NASA wants to use that to track cosmic rays back to their potential source at supernova injections. If all goes to plan, Dragon CRS-12 should reach the ISS by Wednesday of this week.

As before, SpaceX not only successfully sent its Dragon capsule off to the ISS, but successfully landed the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on the ground afterwards. That's an instrumental part of the company's progress to making spaceflight more cost effective, by reusing significant components.