AWS Government, Education, & Nonprofits Blog

Today’s Toy is Tomorrow’s Tool: NASA’s Cloud Journey to Mars and Beyond

Sometimes we get to hear truly inspiring stories about customers who are using the cloud to make the impossible possible. One example of this is NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

JPL is approaching cloud computing with an “80-year-old start up” perspective. From its beginnings in 1936 when engineers were unintentionally blowing things up with rocketry during their self-described “Suicide Squad” era to advance space exploration, NASA JPL is constantly reshaping its thinking and requirements.

In recent years, this has meant turning to the cloud. IT infrastructure was not going to keep them grounded, so they became an innovation engine, turning today’s toy into tomorrow’s tool.

Center of the Universe

JPL has more than two dozen spacecraft and major instruments located throughout the solar system and beyond; they need to see and hear all of them and distribute this information. For example, Voyager, which launched 38 years ago, is currently 15 billion kilometers away, and they talk to it every day – truly an amazing accomplishment.

JPL pushed the envelope further, looked at disruptors, and wondered if they could burst out and process more workloads in the cloud. The answer: Yes, through AWS they could.

Can this change cloud computing?

JPL was given the task to land a 2,000-pound rover on Mars, and have it completely automated. The pressure was on, because the world was watching. NASA JPL worked with AWS to process and share images from Mars.  All of the raw images that came in went straight to AWS.  People everywhere could see them on their smart devices. NASA JPL was able to stream 150 TB of data in just a few hours, garnering 80,000 requests per second. This was far beyond what they could have handled using traditional infrastructure.

Beyond simply sharing the rover’s photos with the world, JPL began to innovate with big data analytics on Mars and on Earth. They received 200 million data points from Curiosity and were able to use data analytics to assist in course correction. Using analytics, they could achieve 40% more drive time on the next rover. Open source tools are now used on every mission. Key to all of this was their use of AWS GovCloud (US) because their data is ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) safe. With AWS GovCloud (US), they do not have to compromise security for collaboration.

Enterprises learning from startups

From a case study perspective, AWS GovCloud (US) became not just a tool, but an innovation center for JPL.  This type of innovation is not just about space; it is about reinventing the enterprise and the advantages the cloud brings.

As you can imagine, space exploration is not cheap. But the cloud helps make the unaffordable affordable. For example, with earth science, algorithms change and people can make mistakes. And this can be costly. It could cost $20,000 dollars over a span of 100 days to test an idea. But how do startups do it? Instead, using AWS, the same project could cost $7,000 and take just six days.

In JPL’s case, no longer did it only have access to ten of their own processors, JPL had the ability to leverage 100,000 AWS processors using the spot market and reserved instances.

Using tools connected to the Internet of Things, AWS database services (AWS Lambda or Amazon DynamoDB), or immersive analytics (analytics using your senses), JPL is able to notice patterns and actually begin to change its enterprise with a startup mentality – meeting its mission more cost effectively and quickly.  This is one example of how a government-industry partnership can serve U.S. citizens by providing a higher return on their investment in space exploration.

Mission in the cloud

Will we find life on Europa (the moon of Jupiter with an environment most likely to host life)? Can we redirect an asteroid? Can we find Earth 2.0?

The cloud helps agencies like NASA to rethink everything. As JPL’s data and space explorers might say: Start with the toys to experience the future today and gain astronomical improvements. Experiment with new user interfaces and control planes, convert it, combine it, and act on it.

Hear Tom Soderstrom talk about how NASA JPL is answering cosmic questions in new ways using AWS in this AWS re:Invent 2016 recorded session here (go to 54:10 for Tom’s talk).