NASA takes cloud computing to Mars

nasa mars rover
NASA said its twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity have become the first NASA space mission to use cloud computing for daily mission operations.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the rovers and the cloud project said it is working with the cloud team of Amazon.com to use cloud computing in the Mars Exploration Rover Project's daily operations. JPL developed Maestro the rover project's activity-planning software. JPL manages NASA's  future Mars Laboratory and expects to utilize cloud computing technology for that mission as well. 

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"When we need more computing capacity, we don't need to install more servers if we can rent more capacity from the cloud for just the time we need it. This way we don't waste electricity and air conditioning with servers idling waiting to be used, and we don't have to worry about hardware maintenance and operating system obsolescence," said JPL's John Callas, rover project manager in a statement.

"The rover project is well suited for cloud computing," added Khawaja Shams, a JPL software engineer supporting the project. "It has a widespread user community acting collaboratively. Cloud enables us to deliver the data to each user from nearby locations for faster reaction time."

NASA added that the unexpected longevity of the rover mission means the volume of data used has outgrown the systems originally planned for handling and sharing data, making the "virtually limitless capacity of cloud computing attractive."  The rovers Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in January 2004 for a three-month mission.  Opportunity continues its exploration mission while Spirit has been mired in the Martian soil and might not recover.

Despite the fact it is stuck in the mud, NASA said the ground where Spirit is stuck last year holds evidence that water, perhaps as snow melt, trickled into the subsurface fairly recently and on a continuing basis.  NASA's Mars rover Opportunity recently took a small detour on its current journey to check out what could be a toaster-sized iron-based meteorite that crashed into the red planet.  NASA scientists called the rock "Oileán Ruaidh," which is the Gaelic name for an island off the coast of northwestern Ireland.

Beyond the missions, this isn't JPL' s first foray into cloud computing. It worked with the cloud team at Microsoft last Fall to launch the "Be a Martian" website. The site enables the public to participate as citizen scientists to improve Mars maps and take part in Mars research tasks.

In addition, JPL has worked with the cloud team at Google on a project in which JPL and computer science students at the University of California, San Diego, developed an educational application enabling fifth- and sixth-graders to tag labels onto images from Mars spacecraft.

NASA also is developing its own cloud computing technology known as Nebula.  Nebula is an open source project that the space agency will use for building shared services, storage capacity, and computing cycles to reduce its costs.  According to a CIO.com story on the project, Nebubla will let users throughout NASA can unilaterally provision and manage IT resources for low-security applications on demand. Next year, IT will launch Nebula's platform as a service: a shared development framework, code repository and set of Web services that developers can use to deploy secure, policy-compliant software-as-a-service applications.  NASA has spent more than $10 million on the project, but it will be another year before the return is clear.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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