That machine is the Spaceborne Computer, a high-performance commercial off-the-shelf computer system running Linux that NASA and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) “ruggedized” for use in outer space.
It will stay aboard the space station for a year, so the two organizations can find out whether it’s tough enough to operate seamlessly amidst the harsh conditions computers are bound to encounter on their way to Mars and farther locations.
These days, computers on Earth still perform most of the calculations needed by spacecraft in orbit. It’s still easy enough for astronauts or autonomous probes to beam back info to the ground and get the results back in near real time.
However, the further we go, the bigger the communication lag is, which could be disastrous for manned missions. For instance, it could take up to 20 minutes to beam data back to Earth from Mars and another 20 minutes to get the results.
A powerful onboard computer that can withstand radiation, solar flares, unstable power supply, extreme temperatures and other conditions could solve that issue. To make a machine like that, you’d typically have to use rugged equipment, but that would bulk up the computer too much and would cost a lot of money.
Instead of tweaking the computer’s hardware, HPE developed software to toughen up the machine. This software powers down the computer when it detects radiation and other anomalies to mitigate environmentally induced errors.