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Delivering a Universe of Data: How NASA's Nebula Cloud Computing Platform is Bringing Mars Data Down to Earth

Agile Government, Cloud Computing
Location: Room 207 A

While man landed on the moon over 40 years ago, it has only been in very recent years that the general public has had access to the multitude of Lunar oribiter imagery that was taken during the years of Apollo. The logistical, political and technical challenges in making such historically significant images available were just too great and the benefits too unclear.

The new millenium has connected us in a way that would have been unimaginable back then. Millions of people not only have an interest in the work and science that NASA leads, they have contributions to make.

NASA is an organization that by necessity has always needed to be truly on the cutting edge. By partnering with private industry and academia NASA has been able to leverage the expertise of organizations in disciplines outside of the agencies core mission. For example, Microsoft and Google have both been strong technology partners in bringing NASA’s treasure trove of imagery and scientific data to mass audiences. Both Google Mars and Microsoft’s World Wide Telescope (WWT) project provide web accessible views of the universe that anyone can pull up on their home computer with a basic web connection.

Since August 2005, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been taking high resolution images of the surface of Mars, transmitting them 55 Million kilometeres back to scientists on earth.

By leveraging Nebula’s unique ability to store and process data in a cost efficient and scalable manner more than 100 terabytes of NASA data, including images from MRO has been incorporated into Worldwide Telescope. But not only has the existing imagery been incorporated, Nebula has enabled something that previously was impossible. Live updates.

For the first time ever, an 8th grader, a climate expert and a rocket scientist are all able to view the same imagery as soon as it is available. While their interests may be massively different, the reality is that whether it’s inspiring a child who will one day step on the red planet or generating new insights through scientific debate across disciplines, this is an incredible achievement with far reaching implications not just for science but for how data is shared publicly across all agencies.

So how does Nebula enable this and why is it different from what has been available before? Firstly, it’s important to understand the process by which a snapshot of a rover exploring a crater ends up in your browser. The MRO is an orbiting sensor in the sky, tasked to fly over areas of interest on Mars and capture imagery and other scientific data that will be of use to scientists back on earth. Bursts of data are periodically sent back across the cosmos to base stations on earth where the data is processed by mission specialists. In the old paradigm this would likely have been the end of the story. A huge amount of very costly data sitting on a server behind untold firewalls and security layers requiring bureaucratic processes, time, and resources to share it even with other scientists outside of the agency.

With Nebula, several computing clusters are instantiated as data is received. The number of servers, amount of disk space, and bandwidth are all provisioned based upon the incoming data and released back to the cloud to be used by other groups when no longer required. The raw data is processed into multiple formats and published using secure interfaces that allow for collaboration with commercial cloud computing services such as Windows Azure and Amazon Web Services. These interfaces allow for two-way interaction, therefore conceivably allowing contributors to further enhance and add value to the data sets, sharing the information back to the source without compromising any of the original data or NASA’s internal computing systems.

Upon receiving the new imagery the Worldwide Telescope system incorporates it into their existing data sets and propagates it out to a content distribution network to ensure that it is served up to a Worldwide Telescope client in a timely manner no matter where an individual may be located. Worldwide Telescope is available as both a rich desktop application for the PC as well as a cross platform viewer within any Silverlight compatible browser.

The ramifications for such a system extend far beyond those of just sharing planetary data and extend to very tangible learning and functional components that can enable other agencies to ingest or share data sets, apply powerful, scalable, supercomputing resources and share relevant results back with communities both inside and outside of government.

Example of two way data sharing and scientific computing scenarios might include:
*Climate scientists sharing global warming data
*Biologists collaborating on genome decoding
*Economists modeling financial changes
*Seismologists modeling faults
*Census Statisticians correlating across data sets
*Epidemiologists studying flu outbreaks

In conclusion, Nebula is a showcase of Gov 2.0 in action. It opens the doors to crowd sourcing and collaboration with powerful, economical computing resources that are built for government. The flexible capability that Nebula offers hastens the pace of innovation, collaboration and new breakthroughs in a way that we see everyday in the private sector. By working with the open source communities and operating in a fully transparent manner Nebula continues to build upon NASA’s heritage of forging new ground and sharing the fruits of its labor with all.

Photo of Chris Kemp

Chris Kemp


Chris C. Kemp joined NASA Ames in 2006 as Director of Strategic Business Development and helped forge partnerships with Google and Microsoft. Since 2008, he has served as Chairman of NASA’s Web Council and Chief Information Officer for NASA Ames Research Center. As CIO of a NASA field center, he is responsible for most of the IT infrastructure at NASA Ames (networks, datacenters, systems, etc.), and several NASA-wide services, including the NASA Security Operations Center (SOC).

Chris is also responsible for conceiving and establishing NASA’s Cloud Computing Pilot Nebula, which is currently supporting several Federal websites with the General Services Administration and the Office of Management and Budget.

Prior to joining NASA, Chris helped create the third largest online community, the leading web-based vacation rental platform Escapia, and the first online grocery shopping platform for Kroger, the world’s largest grocery store chain.

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