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October 25, 2012

Amazon Accelerates NASA’s Search for Life on Mars

Ian Armas Foster

The scientific discoveries made by Curiosity and other rovers sent up to Mars by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Together, they examine Mars’s landscape, exploring the geology, mapping the topography, and most importantly, scanning for signs of life.

That research requires a significant amount of data to be transmitted to and from a destination that is anywhere from nine to twenty light-minutes away. In this infographic, Amazon Web Services and Intel share how they are powering one of the potentially more significant science experiments of our time.

Because of the distance between Mars and Earth, there is significant interference between the two planets caused by things like solar flares. According to the paper, NASA engineers have one or two openings per day through which they can receive data from their rovers and transmit new instructions. The resulting information must be processed data quickly.

This is where Intel and Amazon come in. According to them, a particular photo processing job that normally took two weeks or more was accomplished in four hours over 60 Amazon Web Services machines that are powered by Intel Xeon E5 processors. The paper claims to be able to accelerate JPL’s processing by a factor of eight. As a result, NASA can process 50,000 high-resolution images per hour.

Another big advantage lies in the fact that AWS is operated in the cloud. This feature would allow multiple JPL teams to be working on different problems concurrently. It also means that NASA can share their data instantly with other scientists in the world. This is an important concept in science, as corroborating and confirming data in experiments are part of what ensure the veracity of discoveries.

Finally, according to the paper, running this processing on AWS enables the JPL to turn off and stop paying for the machines once they have no use for them. Again, NASA has only a couple of windows per day through which they can send and receive information. Once those windows close, the need for the extra computing power provided by AWS evaporates.

NASA’s Mars mission is to seek out new life (new civilizations may be out of the question). With the help of AWS, their search is carried out quickly and efficiently.


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