NASA’s Mission-Critical Cloud

Think the Cloud is out of this world? NASA does. A pioneer of Cloud Computing for the last eight years, NASA’s plans to stretch the Public Cloud to the outer reaches of the Solar System and beyond are now coming to fruition. It centres on the space agency’s Deep Space Network (DSN), which links its missions on Mars and beyond to an elastic Cloud infrastructure.

Large antennas are placed in California, Madrid and Canberra to ensure that a line-of-sight communication can take place with NASA’s various interplanetary craft at any time of day or night. But at NASA, there’s always Cloud cover.

Much of the data that comes back from the Mars rovers, Curiosity and Spirit, are in the form of photographs. The space agency now has an automated Cloud system that takes the raw one-megapixel photos from its satellites and rovers millions miles away and puts them straight into the AWS public Cloud the moment they hit Earth. Using Cloud-hosted software and compute power, the photos are automatically stitched together, processed, sometimes made into vast five giga-pixel panoramas, and then uploaded in low-resolution as JPEGs to NASA’s website and apps.

The end result? The world gets to see the images at the same time as NASA’s astronomers.

It gets better. Data from various instruments on the rovers are slowly being merged with each other through Cloud-based platforms, and ecosystems of new apps. Where once its engineers could see a photo from a rover, but little else, by co-locating large amounts of scientific data on the Cloud now they can see that photo accompanied by data from other instruments, such as thermal readouts.

For scientists, it’s a time-saving revolution that makes decision-making much easier.

NASA also uses applications on the Cloud to control Curiosity and Spirit, from downloading reports on yesterday’s movements to uploading manoeuvres for the following day. From 100 million miles away, it takes up to 20 minutes to give a rover an instruction, but the Cloud makes it a semi-autonomous process; NASA engineers even use the Alexa voice assistant to tell Curiosity and Spirit what to do next.

However deeply the Mars rovers use the Cloud, all current missions began development way before the Cloud was around. NASA’s first ‘Cloud native’ missions will be in the 2020s to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa – suspected of harbouring life in an ocean beneath a frozen crust – and the daring Asteroid Redirect Mission (AERM), which will test tech needed to land a man on Mars in the 2030s. NASA thinks that the Cloud’s ability to allow its scientists to analyse big data and collaborate much more easily from the outset should make these missions much cheaper.

As well as saving money, NASA’s Cloud could be about to get even more sophisticated. Topping out at about six megabits per second, the bandwidth of radio waves are no longer sufficient to hold the kind of data streams the next-generation of space probes will be collecting. Cue the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS), a live experiment currently trying to send data 10 to 1,000 times higher in capacity, initially from the International Space Station to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California.

The theory is that laser beams are significantly narrower than radio waves, so offer much more concentrated power. So far, it’s managed 50 megabits per second. It’s been likened to an upgrade from dial-up to broadband – and it could super-charge NASA’s cosmic Cloud.

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