[Beowulf] Why We Need a Supercomputer on the Moon

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Tue Oct 2 08:56:49 PDT 2012


Why We Need a Supercomputer on the Moon

By Robert McMillanEmail Author 10.02.12 6:30 AM

A Lunar supercomputer could ease our deep-space networking bottleneck Image:
Simon Lutrin/Wired

Should we build a supercomputer on the moon?

It would be a mammoth technical undertaking, but a University of Southern
California graduate student thinks there’s a very good reason for doing this:
It would help alleviate a coming deep-space network traffic jam that’s had
NASA scientists worried for several years now.

Ouliang Chang floated his lunar supercomputer idea a few weeks ago at a space
conference in Pasadena, California. The plan is to bury a massive machine in
a deep dark crater, on the side of the moon that’s facing away from Earth and
all of its electromagnetic chatter. Nuclear-powered, it would process data
for space missions and slingshot Earth’s Deep Space Network into a brand new
moon-centric era.

“Once the physical infrastructure backbone is laid out, I suspect it would
look much like the monolith excavation site in Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A
Space Odyssey,” says Chang’s course supervisor Madhu Thangavelu, of USC’s
Viterbi School of Engineering.

The Deep Space Network is a network of 13 giant antennas located in the U.S.,
Australia, and Spain that gather data and talk to spacecraft in, well, deep
space. These space missions are already fighting for bandwidth on this
overloaded network and most of the data has to get back to Earth for
processing. With a lunar supercomputer, Chang says, that could change.

His supercomputer would run in frigid regions near one of the moon’s poles.
The cold temperatures would make cooling the supercomputer easier, and allow
it to use super-efficient superconductive materials to move around
electricity. Although it’s not clear how much water could be found on the
moon’s poles, Chang envisions a water-cooled supercomputer.

How much would this Lunar supercomputer cost? Well, Chang and Thangavelu say
it costs about $50,000 per pound to ship materials to the moon. Add to that
the cost of digging out and building out the sub-lunar supercomputer center,
cooling system and nuclear power generator, and you can easily envision a
project in the $10 billion to $20 billion range, never mind the cost of
building a lunar base station. That would easily make it the most expensive
supercomputer ever built.

The lunar computer would communicate with spaceships and earth using a system
of inflatable, steerable antennas that would hang suspended over moon
craters, giving the Deep Space Network a second focal point away from earth.

Chang’s Lunar supercomputer complex Image: Ouliang Chang

Some at NASA agree that there’s a coming Deep Space Network traffic jam. Back
in 2006. the agency’s top networking gurus warned that over the next three
decades there will be an “order-of-magnitude increase in data to and from
spacecraft and at least a doubling of the number of supported spacecraft.”

Space scientists are worried that the existing Deep Space Network hardware is
obsolete and just not up to the job of transmitting the growing workload of
extra-terrestrial data.

The U.S. space agency is going to have to come up with a plan, the scientists

In fact, Chang isn’t the first person to propose putting a big data
processing facility on the moon. Back in 2004, researchers at Space Systems
Loral described something called the Lunar Data Cache — an extraterrestrial
backup system that would keep businesses online in the event of a Sept. 11,
2001-type terrorist strike somewhere on Earth. The Loral proposal also
described a few way-out moneymaking ideas such as lunar rover-deployed
billboards, robotic rock-heaving contests, robot wresting, and rover races
piloted by NASCAR drivers.

Clearly, the business of dreaming up supercomputers in space is not for those
who think small.

Still, after being reported in the New Scientist, Chang’s work has caught the
interest of the space community because it addresses a very real and pressing
space problem. And that’s something that could give future lunar missions a
very clear and exciting sense of purpose, says his USC’s Thangavelu. “For
now, it is piquing the mind of the policy makers,” he says.

“Even though far-out,” Chang’s paper “does excite the imagination,” says Kul
Bhasin, a system engineer and formulation manager with NASA Glenn Research
Center. He agrees that there is a growing problem with outer space

Bhasin works on designing advanced space networking technologies, and he says
that there are some promising alternative communications technologies —
Laser-based networking, for example — that could break the Deep Space Network

Next year, researchers at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory will test out a 622
megabits per second Laser network that will speed up earth to moon
communications fivefold.

The supercomputer-on-the-moon idea was pretty much a natural for Chang, who
describes himself as a super-computing geek. “My PhD thesis is about doing
one of the largest space plasma turbulence simulation in the world,” he says.
“I just put two popular concepts — space exploration and cloud computing —

So, will there ever be a supercomputer on the moon? Though NASA’s Bhasin
finds it interesting, he’s really not sure it will ever happen. “Your guess
is as good as mine,” he says.  Robert McMillan

Robert McMillan is a writer with Wired Enterprise. Got a tip? Send him an
email at: robert_mcmillan [at] wired.com.

Read more by Robert McMillan

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