Astronauts on the International Space Station can’t clean up their environment like people on Earth can; NASA can’t just send them a bottle of bleach. Keeping their environment free of pollution requires constant testing. This process used to take six to eight weeks and involved sending entire implanted petri dishes back to Earth for analysis, but that changed in 2016 when NASA sent them their DNA sequencer. After that, the data was just…
Astronauts on the International Space Station can’t clean up their environment like people on Earth can; NASA can’t just send them a bottle of bleach. Keeping their environment free of pollution requires constant testing. This process used to take six to eight weeks and involved sending entire implanted petri dishes back to Earth for analysis, but that changed in 2016 when NASA sent them their DNA sequencer. After that, the data only had to be sent again, which greatly shortened the results time. Now, NASA is looking at edge computing as a way to shorten the sample time to answer back.
The entire process currently takes five to seven days, said Sarah Wallace, a microbiologist at Johnson Space Center, with two or three days allotted for actually sending data. But with edge computing, that time frame can be trimmed down to as little as 24 hours. And while this is important to the astronauts on the International Space Station, it will be absolutely crucial to NASA’s future plans for space exploration.
“When we think of the International Space Station, we really have delays that don’t exist in our communications,” Wallace said. But as we think about it [Lunar] The portal, the physical locations on the moon, may or may not be. And obviously, with Mars, that wouldn’t be the case. So our goal has always been how do we get an answer for the crew without these bioinformatics experts? “
This is important, because DNA sequencing is a complex business. Each sample generates approximately half a terabyte of data. So NASA worked with private partners to package and run the code on Spaceborne Computer-2 (SBC-2), an experimental proof of concept system designed to test the viability of commercial space-ready hardware, providing cutting-edge computing capabilities and artificial intelligence to the International Space Station.
The main challenge is keeping the code updated and making sure it works the way it is supposed to. This is why the next step is to pursue AI and machine learning that will constantly monitor your code to make sure it works the way it is supposed to and delivers results that can be trusted. But the forms must be kept very small, because the connection is not guaranteed. Various mission-critical applications must share the limited bandwidth between the International Space Station and Earth, so the code must be kept as small as possible to ensure it gets to the edge in a timely manner.
Another challenge is the process of transmitting data from the space station computers (SSCs)—which Wallace described as “everyday computers”—that run the DNA sequencer, known as MinION, to SBC-2.
“These computers just aren’t powerful enough to be able to do any of this…the really computationally heavy part,” she said. “And so we had to store the data on the SSC, and then we had to transfer it to the ISS network, where it could be picked up by Spaceborne Computer-2. And just transferring those big files [was] Not as direct as we would with just using a servant or something on the ground.”
This required the collaboration of a number of different stakeholders to figure out how to make it work. But Wallace said this process is much easier at NASA than anywhere else. She attributes this to the agency’s overall problem-solving culture. She said NASA is used to pushing technologies to their limits and pioneering new technologies and processes, so where other agencies might start with roadblocks, NASA moves directly to solutions.
So while we have those challenges that we’ve all pointed out, I think NASA is more open to, “Well, we have to find a way to fix it.” So they take some time from the beginning to tell you the old-fashioned way to try it first. And they’re more open to, “Well, we might not know the exact way to do it right now. “But we’re going to get going and start working on a new path to get to the end goal,” Wallace said. “So I think that’s why we’ve been successful, rather than throwing roadblocks up front and having us go through a bunch of ground tests that we know aren’t going to work, we’ve started trying to forge a new path to the bottom line.”
The whole idea here, Wallace said, is to reduce the risk as much as possible. Not only has sending a DNA sequencer to ISS astronauts get faster results, but it removes the risk of having to culture large quantities of potential contaminants on the station. She said the risks will be further reduced when they send out the MinION 2.0 device this spring. That would be able to handle much of the same heavy computational load, without having to be tied to special services centers. Not having to do this data transfer will reduce the time it takes to get results, potentially to less than eight hours.
“We’re also working on taking the risk assessment part of it a step further. So instead of just having a list of the microbes present, and that includes the risk assessment piece, that’s something we want to include down the road as well: water is good to drink, happy face, kinda sad face, Wallace said. “The next step for us, as I mentioned earlier, is just to give the crew that autonomy so they don’t have to wait for us to raise their voice/like a situation. And that all builds down that path to that autonomy for them that’s so critical in our exploration beyond orbit. low ground.