November 4, 2010 – Space, the final frontier. For the cloud?

For the first time on one of its space missions, NASA announced that it has turned to cloud computing for the growing capacity needs from daily operation of its Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The government space agency stated in a news release that it gained the confidence in cloud use from public participation sites linked to the Mars mission and in collaborations with Amazon, Microsoft, Google and other vendors.

Cloud computing has a unique ability to address the time, cost and distance limitations associated with robotic rovers beaming regular, ample data updates from Earth’s next-door planetary neighbor, according to John Callas, project manager with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL), which manages the Mars rovers.

“This is a chance to think about computer capacity and data storage as a commodity like electricity, or even the money in your bank account,” Callas said in a NASA news release.

The rovers landed on Mars in January 2004, with an initial schedule of three-month missions. Opportunity continues to send daily log updates to engineers and scientists in North America and Europe, though Spirit is believed to have been in hibernation mode since March.

Khawaja Shams, JPL software engineer supporting the project, said in a news release that the cloud brings opportunity because the unexpected longevity of the mission has brought an unexpected volume of data to NASA’s systems.

JPL has worked with multiple cloud vendors on possible deployment since 2007, according to a news release. It collaborated with Amazon for implementation of the rover’s daily operations and then developed its own activity planning software, called Maestro. Backed by the federal Open Government Initiative, JPL collaborated with Microsoft’s cloud team and last year launched the “Be a Martian” website, where more than 54,000 people have signed up to analyze research and map data. Google cloud capabilities were used in a project to tag labels onto images from the Mars spacecraft, and other vendors contributed to the formation of cloud-oriented architecture for various rover applications.

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