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August 7, 2012

Curiosity’s Cloud Connection

Robert Gelber

The news media has been abuzz over NASA’s recent achievement. The big risk, big reward operation costing 2.5 billion dollars, which included safely landing a mini cooper-sized robot on Mars, paid off. Behind the scenes, the agency has relied on cloud services to keep people informed and will most likely continue to use similar application to assist the rover as it explores the red planet.

NASA Curious Link
Animation of the Mars rover Curiosity communicating

Just before the landing took place, GigaOm posted an article detailing the preparations NASA put into their live stream. The agency knew Curiosity’s entry sequence was going to be a big event, so they had to prepare for high amounts of Web traffic aimed at their live stream.

They partnered with SOASTA, a service that tests how much load applications can handle on the web. The company uses cloud resources to flood servers, emulating high amounts of traffic. It’s a method of testing the stamina of a given infrastructure and was used to determine the resiliency of the 2012 Olympic website.

In NASA’s case, a Mac Pro at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) shipped four streams of various bitrates to a flash server. The flash server then pushed the streams to a “tier 1″ server, which was replicated by 40 load balanced “tier 2″ servers on Amazon’s EC2.

When SOASTA tested the stream, they generated 25 Gbps of traffic for 40 minutes. In addition, they terminated 10 instances and then 20 instances from NASA’s stream to make sure Amazon’s load balancing service would automatically bring them back up. During the 40-minute test, SOASTA downloaded over 6 terabytes of data. Needless to say, NASA’s stream worked without a hitch.

Looking ahead, it appears the agency will continue to use cloud applications during the Curiosity’s mission. HPC in the Cloud reported on NASA’s use of Windows Azure to power a new cloud-based application called the “Be a Martian” program. The project uploaded 250,000 images of Mars onto Microsoft’s cloud platform and served more than 2.5 million data queries. Given that the new rover is equipped with 17 onboard cameras, there is a good chance a number of images captured by Curiosity will make their way to the application.