NASA turns to the cloud for help with next-generation ground missions

However, with missions like SWOT and NISAR, this will not be feasible for most scientists. If someone wanted to download a day of SWOT information to their computer, they would need 20 laptops, each capable of storing a terabyte of data. If a researcher wanted to download the equivalent of four days of data from NISAR, it would take about a year to work with an average home Internet connection. Working with data stored in the cloud means that scientists won’t have to buy huge hard drives to download the data or wait months while lots of large files are uploaded to their system. “Processing and storing large volumes of data in the cloud will provide a cost-effective and efficient approach to studying big data issues,” said Lee-Lueng Fu, JPL Project Scientist for SWOT.

Infrastructure limitations won’t be a major concern either, as organizations won’t have to pay to store mind-boggling amounts of data or to maintain physical space for all those hard drives. “We just don’t have the additional physical server space at JPL with sufficient capacity and flexibility to support both NISAR and SWOT,” said Hook Hua, JPL Scientific Data Systems Architect for both missions.

NASA engineers have already leveraged this aspect of cloud computing for a proof of concept product using data from Sentinel-1. The satellite is an ESA (European Space Agency) mission that also examines changes to the Earth’s surface, although it uses a different type of radar instrument than what NISAR will use. Working with Sentinel-1 data in the cloud, engineers produced a colorized map showing the evolution of the Earth’s surface from more vegetated areas to deserts. “It took a week of constant computing in the cloud, using the equivalent of thousands of machines,” said Paul Rosen, JPL project scientist for NISAR. “If you had tried to do it outside of the cloud, you would have had to buy all those thousands of machines. “

Cloud computing will not replace all the ways researchers work with scientific datasets, but at least for earth sciences it is certainly gaining traction, said Alex Gardner, member of the NISAR science team at JPL. who studies glaciers and sea level rise. He foresees that most of his analyzes will occur elsewhere in the near future rather than on his laptop or personal server. “I expect that in five to 10 years I will not have a lot of hard drive on my computer and will be exploring the new Cloud Data Firehose,” he said.

To explore NASA’s publicly available datasets, visit:

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