How NVIDIA GPUs Support NASA’s Space Programs

Most of the team attending this week’s NASA Social SpaceX CRS-6 launch either play computer games on NVIDA GeForce GPUs or have kids who do. But I also received a lot of questioning looks when I said my interest in the launch was in the application of GPUs to supporting the space program. So here are a few examples.

With yesterday’s launch being scrubbed at T-3 minutes due to anvil clouds, weather is top of mind approaching today’s 4:10.40 pm (ET) instantaneous launch window. While last minute weather aborts are based mainly on realtime weather radar of the launch site, we have all become used to routinely seeing 10 day weather forecasts from numerous commercial web sites. These forecasts typically start with global weather simulations generated by one of the national weather services. Billions of numerical calculations are required to model the interactions occurring on earth and in our atmosphere. Using these global weather models and simulations as the starting point, regional models are then often used to provide more localized forecasts. Even the world’s most powerful supercomputers are not yet powerful enough to model the weather days in advance at a small enough scale to 100% accurately forecast the weather in a localized area like the Kennedy Space Center launch site.

Just as NASA is modernizing many of the Kennedy Space Center facilities in preparation for the upcoming Space Launch System, leading weather researchers around the world are updating their weather forecasting software to take advantage of powerful new GPU technology. One good example is the work by MeteoSwiss and CSCS on the COSMO regional weather model. Just like any backpacker has their favorite Swiss army knife and any foodie has their favorite Swiss cheese, everyone in the supercomputer field knows that CSCS operates the largest GPU powered supercomputer in Europe and has very accurate weather forecasts. The weather impacts everyone, no matter if you are trying to launch a spacecraft, take a commercial aircraft flight, or walk across the street on a cloudy day.

Now back to today’s CRS-6 launch. Sitting atop the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is the Dragon spacecraft, an unmanned capsule carrying over 4000 pounds of supplies for the International Space Station. Last year, SpaceX unveiled their next generation Dragon v2 spacecraft designed to carry up to 7 astronauts to the space station and back.

The 15 minute video on YouTube is worth a watch for more details. About 13 minutes into the video, Elon Musk steps into the spacecraft and shows off the pilot control displays, which have been widely reported to use an NVIDIA SOC (system on chip). Today’s NVIDIA Tegra line of SOCs incorporate smaller versions of the same GPUs used in some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers. This greatly simplifies life for software developers by enabling a scalable developer platform ranging from $192 NVIDIA Jetson TK1 developer kits to multi-million dollar GPU supercomputers that can run the same programs (albeit at different speeds).

Of course another area where GPUs are broadly used is indirectly related to NASA in that processing the science data from experiments carried out in space often uses GPUs. CRS-6 carries several science experiments that will generate data similar to what is routinely processed by GPU powered university systems like Clemson’s Palmetto cluster.

Last but not least, GPUs are increasingly being used to simulate future rocket engines, allowing them to be more efficient, powerful, and safe. Many of the rockets flying today are based on decade-old designs and could only be tested by firing them off in the middle of the desert. Just as a modern car is safer today because manufacturers can use computers to simulate many thousands of crashes instead of just test-crashing a few physical cars, future rocket engines will be safer because GPUs will provide the computational power necessary to simulate flying the rocket which involves not only complex computational fluid dynamics simulations but also molecular level simulations of the combustion process.

At NVIDIA, we are passionate about all the uses of GPUs, but for now, I’m most excited about that moment, planned for 4:10.40 pm ET today, when we hopefully hear those 3 magic words “we have liftoff”.

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About Marc Hamilton

Marc Hamilton – Vice President, Solutions Architecture and Engineering, NVIDIA. At NVIDIA, the Visual Computing Company, Marc leads the worldwide Solutions Architecture and Engineering team, responsible for working with NVIDIA’s customers and partners to deliver the world’s best end to end solutions for professional visualization and design, high performance computing, and big data analytics. Prior to NVIDIA, Marc worked in the Hyperscale Business Unit within HP’s Enterprise Group where he led the HPC team for the Americas region. Marc spent 16 years at Sun Microsystems in HPC and other sales and marketing executive management roles. Marc also worked at TRW developing HPC applications for the US aerospace and defense industry. He has published a number of technical articles and is the author of the book, “Software Development, Building Reliable Systems”. Marc holds a BS degree in Math and Computer Science from UCLA, an MS degree in Electrical Engineering from USC, and is a graduate of the UCLA Executive Management program.
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