NASA Takes Cloud on Mars Mission

By Nicole Hemsoth

November 8, 2010

Last week NASA announced that its Mars Exploration Rover Project has been the first space agency mission to use cloud resources for daily operations. According to reports from NASA, the cloud is being used to access the software and data that the flight team uses to manage their daily plans for the rover’s activities.

Researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who manage the mission worked with members of Amazon Web Services team at both the planning and implementation stages in conjunction with the JPL team who built the rover’s daily activity-planning software, which is called Maestro.

JPL CIO, Tomas Soderstrom admitted in a recent release that his team has been working with a number of cloud vendors since 2007 to find the best ways to take advantage of cloud computing and that the agency set forth to “pragmatically look past the hype about cloud computing to find the practical, cost-efficient real mission applications.”

With the readily-available NASA Nebula cloud resource officially at the disposal of the agency following the recent announcement of NASA Cloud Services, one has to wonder why the JPL decided on using an external cloud services provider. Soderstrom, in an interview with Information Week, noted that the agency decided not to use its own cloud for the Rover project because “it has had more time to evaluate the worldwide reach of Amazon than Nebula so far” but that the JPL would indeed evaluate the use of Nebula for coming projects. 

A Mission Well-Suited for Cloud

As it stands, there are two rovers on the surface of Mars—Spirit and Opportunity—but at this point, only Opportunity is on duty since Spirit went into low-power hibernation mode in March. Originally, these were planned as three-month missions but as the program has grown, extended missions have been added, which means there is far more data than researchers initially planned for when initially considering expected capacity.

Since the mission has been extended far past what NASA engineers anticipated, the volume of data has outgrown the systems that were put into place to handle it. Khawaja Shames, a software engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, noted that using the cloud means that the team’s mission is no longer bound by these restrictions, which is one element that made cloud computing an attractive option back in 2007 when the team started to scan for options.

Interestingly, the reasons that drove the decision to adopt cloud computing for these particular needs are not so different than those that inspire enterprise organizations to consider making the move to remote resources. For one thing, the JPL was facing a decision about either building out its current infrastructure to handle the unexpected increase in data following the move to extend the mission.

Project Manager for the Mars Rover project at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, John Callas, remarked “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.”

In addition to being a good fit due to the unexpected demands for storage and compute capacity, Shames also noted that the cloud is well-suited for this project because of the added boost it gives to the collaborative efforts that keep the project going.  In his view, using the cloud means that these disparate contributors to the mission are able to share information in near real-time.

Before the agency adopted the model, members of the Rover team had to send data to users who were geographically scattered based on their location versus sending the data from a central location, which sped up workflow—an important factor in the overall sense of satisfaction with the fit of cloud as strategy to improve operations. 

JPL on Cutting Edge of Cloud

NASA’s JPL has been among the early adopters of cloud computing, although in somewhat different contexts, for a number of years. For instance, the JPL formed a partnership with Google in which the NASA researchers used Google’s resources to develop an educational application that allowed elementary students to tag and label images from the spacecraft.

The JPL also formed a partnership between Microsoft and the JPL called “Be a Martian,” which came into play in 2009. This project, which can be found at uses its 54,000 users who analyze data to help improve the Mars mapping projects as well as aid in other research endeavors.

While the JPL’s use of Amazon as its primary resource has occurred in part because the need for a solution came far before the agency was able to fully evaluate what Nebula would have to offer, there is a clear effort on the part of NASA to remain vendor-neutral when making decisions. Given its partnerships with Microsoft and Google before this foray into Amazon, it does seem clear that the agency is willing to give vendors a fair shake if they have services to offer that are ideally suited for their projects.

The Bigger Picture for Clouds in Government

As a release from the JPL noted early this week, “The extended missions of Spirit and Opportunity have provided a resource for testing innovations during an active space mission for possible use in future missions. New software uploads giving the rovers added autonomy have been one example, and cloud computing is another…JPL is currently building and testing NASA’s next Mars rover, Curiosity, for launch in late 2011 in the Mars Science Laboratory mission.”

One can only imagine that if all goes well in this cloud, it will be a central feature during the Curiosity mission as well.

Out of all agencies and departments in the United States government, there has yet been no parallel to NASA’s efforts in exploring and providing a research commitment to cloud computing. Between Nebula, which is its own internal cloud that will soon be opened to other agencies, and its practical implementation of other cloud-driven research projects, NASA is setting the trend for cloud adoption for government agency research.

While granted, the agency might not face some of the security hurdles that other agencies that have massive privacy and security restrictions, at least in terms of this particular project, this is nonetheless demonstrating that the cloud can be a cost-effective solution to handle peak loads and problems that occur when data outgrows the systems meant to handle it.

Cloud computing has been making a stronger appearance in releases from governments worldwide, but in the United States, adoption has been slow yet steady as benchmarking and authorization procedures to mitigate security concerns continue to add delays.

Thus far, outside of the General Services Administration (GSA) clouds have been discussed to death but are still in the mid-implementation stages. NASA, however, has taken a proactive approach with its Nebula resource and now, with a growing number of users adopting it for research uses and the utilization of Amazon, Microsoft and other cloud services resources, news from government agencies containing actual cloud use studies is expected to start trickling in at a faster pace—a good sign for those who advocate cloud adoption for research and government agencies.

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