beowulf in space

Jim Lux James.P.Lux at
Thu Apr 24 16:43:49 EDT 2003

At 02:34 AM 4/24/2003 -0700, Jim Ahia wrote:
>As I was reading this thread, some things came to mind that might add to
>the discussion:
>1 ) although Dells and Gateways are too heavy to lift into orbit,
>pc-104 systems might be the solution.  3.6 x 3.8 inch pentium-class
>motherboards with a single 5v power requirement make things much
>smaller.  It is completely possible to have each node fit into the space
>of a half-height CD-ROM drive.  Can anyone say "cluster in one box"?

I have seen PC104 stuff being used in prototypes, but for space 
applications, they prefer a more robust packaging. cPCI is showing some 
signs of popularity, as is the venerable VME.  ESA has funded and is flying 
quite a lot of stuff that is essentially single board computers 
interconnected with high speed serial links.

>2 ) Has anyone yet mentioned the possibility of mesh networks using
>802.11 for robotics clustering?  Such networks of robots might make site
>construction, ship construction, and mining feasible.

There is a huge amount of this kind of work going on at JPL: cooperative 
robotics.  Take a look at the JPL planetary robotics web site However, to my knowledge, they're not doing much 
cluster computing.

>Mining the surface of the moon is well documented to provide hydrogen,
>oxygen, aluminum, silica, and titanium.

Uhhhhh... yes, in the sense that the moon is made of rock, which is made of 
hydrogen, oxygen, aluminum, etc.  Turning rock into metal is a non-trivial 
process, even on Earth where there are literally millenia of history for 
the process.

>Using a similar swarm of robots for site construction on mars prior to
>human arrival can have a major impact on mission success.
>If all robots use identical motion base and cpu, then 2 broken bots can
>be cannibalized to return one working bot to service.

Of course, this means that the robots have to be a lot smarter and more 
capable because not only do they have to do their primary job, they also 
have to be "dismantleable", and have the ability to dismantle 
things.  While this is feasible, in an abstract sense, it might not be 
worth it; you might be able to spend the resources you'd spend on providing 
that additional capability on just buying more simpler robots in the first 
place.. Hmmm.. kind of like buying a bunch of generic commodity computers 
instead of one big specialized computer to do a particular job...

I'll also point out that it's a pretty big job just to design and build 
rovers that drive and make a few measurements, much less do construction 
work, smelt metal, do scrap recovery, etc.  The Mars Exploration Rovers are 
quite capable as far as spacecraft go, but weren't particularly easy or 
cheap to develop, and are hardly a production line item, nor are they 
likely to be anytime in the next couple decades.

James Lux, P.E.
Spacecraft Telecommunications Section
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Mail Stop 161-213
4800 Oak Grove Drive
Pasadena CA 91109
tel: (818)354-2075
fax: (818)393-6875

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