Space Station Gets Full Power, but What’s the Switch?

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The Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-119), in one of the final missions of the NASA shuttle program, docked with the International Space Station to deliver the last set of solar panels to give the orbiting lab full power. Back on Earth, Cisco is going nova in the data centre, but Hewlett-Packard rules network switching in space.

After suffering two serious delays on its mission, the space shuttle Discovery 17 March docked with the International Space Station to deliver the final set of solar panel arrays to the orbiting laboratory. Once installed, the panels will provide the station with full operational power.

Docking between the space station and shuttle, on a mission officially designated as STS-119, occurred shortly after 5 p.m. EDT. The space shuttle, which launched 16 March, was initially delayed more than two days because of a hydrogen fuel leak on the launch pad. After it launched, the 14-hour trip to the International Space Station was made a little longer as the shuttle had to evade a 11cm piece of space junk left over from a disabled Russian satellite.

The space station and shuttle crews will spend the next eight days and at least three spacewalks installing the 2272kg, 230-foot solar arrays. The arrays are composed of 32,800 solar cells.

While Discovery—on one of its final missions before the shuttle program is retired by NASA next year—is busy bringing more power to the International Space Station, Cisco Systems is battling for control of high-tech data systems here on Earth. By entering the virtualized blade server market, Cisco is challenging longtime partner Hewlett-Packard for dominance in data centre architecture. More than 200 miles above Earth, Cisco has no chance at unseating HP from a networking battle it lost more than a year ago.

Since last June, HP has the only piece of commercial networking gear in orbit. In addition to two redundant LAN switches built by Astrium, a subsidiary of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), HP’s ProCurve 2524 switch is the primary switch regulating data traffic around the space station’s network.

HP won a three-year competition in which networking gear was exposed to the simulated conditions and radiation of the space station environment. Switches by Cisco, D-Link, Avaya, 3Com and NetGear were part of the competition. HP’s ProCurve 2524 not only won the competition, it didn’t require any special modifications.

“Inside the ProCurve Switch 2524, a central switch fabric handles the majority of tasks, while switches from other manufacturers tend to distribute across a number of chips,” said Rolf Schmidhuber, Columbus Data Management System Engineer for EADS Astrium, in a statement last year. “By using significantly fewer chips on the circuit board, this proved much more advantageous to us, as the fewer components present, the lower the susceptibility to radiation and mechanical duress during the launch into space. This was a key reason why ProCurve beat the competition.”

While Cisco may be looking to unseat HP in the data centres on terra firma, there’s little chance that it will do the same in space anytime soon. The HP ProCurve 2524 aboard the space station has an operational service life expectancy of 10 years, meaning it won’t be scheduled to come out of service until 2018 at the earliest.