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An open-source cloud computing project, known as OpenStack, was developed by NASA and Rackspace Inc. to standardize the data on NASA websites. (NASA Photo)

When one of NASA’s top geeks talks to the cloud-computing geeks at Amazon Web Services’ re:Invent conference, you can bet the talk is not going to be just about outer space.

Tom Soderstrom, chief technology and innovation officer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, took pains during tonight’s talk in Las Vegas to point out how the space agency was taking advantage of the cloud.

For example, he noted that NASA’s Surface Water Ocean Topography mission (known as SWOT) and the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar mission (aka NISAR) will be sending back a flood of Earth observation data within just a few years.

“It’s 100 terabytes per day, 100 gigabytes per second, all the time. Much too big for our data centers,” he told the audience. “So what are we going to do? We’re going to use cloud computing.”

Soderstrom said NASA was tickled to learn how cloud computing services could be purchased on the spot market.

“You’re all going, ‘Duh … I know about the spot market,'” he said. “For us, it was a revolution, because we discovered we could all of a sudden compute at a fraction of the dollar, pennies on the dollar. So that is now part of our operational way of working.”

Amazon Web Services has played a role in getting images from NASA’s Curiosity rover out to the public, Soderstrom said. “We tried AWS to give you all the pictures at the same time as we saw them,” he said.

It’s also providing the computing power for working out the details for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, which aims to use solar electric propulsion to send a robotic probe to a near-Earth asteroid and bring a piece of space rock back into lunar orbit for astronauts to study. (The fate of that mission is up in the air due in part to the White House transition.)

Looking further ahead, Soderstrom touched on NASA’s plans for sending spacecraft to Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter, to look for signs of a hidden ocean and perhaps life. One scenario calls for sending an orbiter to scan the surface for a suitable landing spot, as well as a lander to sample the ice.

“Can you imagine how much data and simulation that will take? Because it has to be completely automated,” Soderstrom said. “Without cloud computing, there’s no way we could do it. We’re using model-based engineering and other interesting goodies, and it’s all starting in the cloud.”

The same goes for the search for Earthlike planets beyond our solar system – a search that will become more intense once NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and the Breakthrough Starshot project kick into gear.

“The science, the simulation, the math is going to require hundreds of thousands of servers to do this,” Soderstrom said. “But we don’t have to own them anymore. So cloud computing is a really, really big deal for us.”

Also from re:Invent: NASA gives a new Mars skill to Amazon’s Alexa

Soderstrom finished up with a preview of the 2020 Mars rover mission. He noted that in the past, Mars mission planners typically had only 20 minutes to figure out what their rover was going to do on the next day.

“Twenty minutes means that sometimes you miss a day. The rover stays parked. That’s not a really good use of time,” Soderstrom said. “But if we could speed that up to five minutes, we wouldn’t miss a day. How do you do that? Cloud computing. Immense computing power, very fast, and use some machine learning to augment it. That’s what we’re going to do.

“So cloud computing has gone from being a ‘very nice to have,’ and engaging you all with the pictures, to something mission-critical, every single day.”

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