Around a decade ago, Kevin Glunt was more interested in drawing cars than paying attention in class, with his parents threatening that he would repeat a grade of school if he didn’t stop. Now aged 24, he’s in awe as SpaceX has launched his team’s creation into orbit: A radiation-tolerant supercomputer that will be used in experiments on sensing, image processing, and machine learning, aboard the International Space Station.
“All of our names are on the board, like etched on it,” Glunt told Inverse this week, prior to the launch. “It’s like, your name will be in space. And it’s really, really weird to think about that.”
It’s not just a name in space: the computer, made by Glunt and his fellow researchers and students from the University of Pittsburgh, could pave the way for a faster future in space. More powerful systems at lower cost, and with more efficient power usage, represent another step toward more reliable research in orbit.
The SpaceX CRS-17 mission carrying the computer launched a little before 3 a.m. local time on Saturday, from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The supply mission to the International Space Station carried 5,500 pounds of cargo in a Dragon capsule, including this supercomputer:
“I stayed up pretty late last night to watch the launch and I am relieved CRS-17 has finally been launched!,” Glunt told Inverse on Saturday morning. “I was extremely nervous that they were going to scrub the launch and felt that deep in my stomach. Afterward, I could feel my heart beating rapidly as everything was being prepared and the launch was finally at its final few minutes. After it launched I literally threw my phone cheering.”
Sending a regular computer to space would probably cause chaos. Unlike on Earth, the hardware has to stand up to all sorts of radiation. This can lead to binary “bits” getting flipped from zero to one or vice versa, or even failing altogether.
Over the years, researchers have developed radiation-hardened machines for use in space, or “rad-hard,” but they tend to be slower and a lot more expensive. The computer made by Glunt and his fellow researchers mixes elements from both designs, sacrificing some reliability to enable the use of advanced components from Earth, while building in a level of redundancy to protect against ruined data.
Alan George, Ph.D., is the founder and director of the organization behind the supercomputer, SHREC: the National Science Foundation’s Center for Space, High-performance, and Resilient Computing. George tells Inverse that the students are “why the research is so much fun.”
“Many of the students here grew up wanting to be astronauts,” George says. “Since we’re not going to be astronauts, the next best thing, and in some ways the better thing, is to be working on research and technology that will fly in space.”
Growing up in Beechview, on the south-west side of Pittsburgh, Glunt never felt particularly inspired by school. He was always interested in space, but as a kid he was more focused on his thousands of Hot Wheels cars and building bridges with Lego. That all changed in 10th grade when he took Steve Scoville’s physics class.
“Honestly, everyone who meets Mr. Scoville is just…he is a fantastic human being,” Glunt says. “I would say, a lot of what I am today, I really owe to his enthusiasm.”
In one demonstration, Scoville took the class into the hallway and asked them to map out the solar system to scale. Once the model was complete, end-to-end, he revealed that the nearest galaxy was not out in the parking lot like some students assumed, but a five-hour drive away in Harrisburg.
“That just blows your mind, stuff like that,” Glunt recalls.
Glunt went on to take Scoville’s AP Physics class in his senior year, the same year Scoville was recognized for his excellence with the $25,000 Milken Educator Award.
He then started on a mechanical engineering program at the University of Pittsburgh, taking classes in algebra to make up for the lost time compared to his classmates. In the spring of 2017, George approached him and asked if he wanted to continue onto a funded masters degree. In return, Glunt would work on the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program-Houston 6 mission. Returning to his room from the meeting, Glunt excitedly told his engineer roommate the good news.
“I basically googled ‘How do satellites work?’” Glunt says. “My roommate was like, ‘so, you’re working on putting things into space and you’re googling how satellites work!?’”
Glunt was called in partway through the project as part of a crack team. The original project, which started in 2014 and went up in February 2017 on CRS-10, was a 10-by-10-by-10 centimeter “CubeSat” machine with a primary and secondary computer working together. NASA’s Goddard team covered the mechanical aspects of this first project.
For the next project, a five-computer supercomputer cluster measuring the equivalent of three “CubeSat” units, SHREC assumed Goddard would supply mechanical designers again — when it turned out that wasn’t the case, Glunt was recruited in “extremely quickly.”
In Glunt’s first meeting with lead student Chris Wilson, he realized the pressure of the task almost immediately.
“He’s like, ‘listen, you are now the guy, you are the person who, if I need a mechanical thing done, you will get it done…if anything goes wrong, you fix it with the mechanical stuff,’” Glunt says. “So he put things in perspective really quickly.”
The past two years have been an intense crunch period for Glunt and the team. NASA would occasionally come by to check on the status of the project. It was an opportunity to ask experts about issues on the project, but they were aware that their time was extremely valuable and avoided bombarding them with silly questions. At one point, a member of the team took a hammock into the lab to monitor a sequence.
Last year, the team finished the supercomputer. It was then shipped out to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston for final tests.
The new computer, two-and-a-half times more powerful than its predecessor, uses reconfigurable Xilinx Zynq commercial processors, reconfigurable meaning the team can adjust the setup to make it more suitable for different tasks. George claims the system is probably about as powerful as a regular laptop. It also has two camera lenses outside of the three-CubeSat construction.
Part of the project will involve image processing, gathering data on weather patterns for analysis. It will use machine learning to help analyze images as they come through. That could also pave the way for more autonomous spacecraft, but due to the reduced reliability of the system it would more likely play more of a role in conducting space experiments. Maneuvering crafts, as with self-driving cars, would require as high reliability as possible.
Like its predecessor, STP-H6 will run on the space station for around three to four years. The SHREC has already won the competition for a third version, which will be even more powerful, so work will get underway over the next two years with a new team of students.
As for Glunt, he’s now working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on thermal analysis from the Europa probe. From doodling cars to working on the far reaches of the solar system, Glunt’s journey is a self-described “case study” for why “traditional school isn’t necessarily for everyone.”
“I felt at a disadvantage, but I really tried my best to hunker down and really study, and I feel like that’s where the work has really paid off,” Glunt says.
Read more about the science-packed CRS-17 mission: Living Bits of Human Organs Are Headed to Space to Save More Lives on Earth