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January 9, 2013

NetApp Supplements Curiosity Data Flow

Ian Armas Foster

NASA put a man on the moon in 1969 with less computing power than most people find in their smartphones. Yet as space missions grow more complex, so too do data requirements.

The landing of Curiosity on Mars was arguably the most complicated NASA mission to date. Although it appears small, the scouting rover weighs almost a ton, approximately 1800 Mars pounds (gravity on Mars is similar but not equivalent to Earth’s gravity). In order to land, the rover had to use a series of decelerators, including Mars’s atmosphere, a supersonic parachute, and rockets.

When missions reach that level of complexity, a large amount of test data has to be processed and stored. “This is new technology, we’d never done this before,” Curiosity Infrastructure Engineer Vu Nguyen said on the unique venture. He went on to give an example of a problem faced by the JPL in their preparations, particularly regarding the unusual weight. “As you gain an ounce, you exponentially increase the size of the airbags.”

 NetApp’s Richard Bliss noted that his company teamed up with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) of NASA to fulfill the mission’s data needs. In particular, NetApp co-founder Dave Hitz and Nguyen discussed a new data-intensive technique that was set up for the Curiosity landing.

This new technique involved setting up two streams in what Nguyen simply called a ‘dual-stream approach.’ This stream has to communicate data to the JPL team on Earth while also transmitting instructions in real time to the module. The second stream is designed such that it watches the first stream and takes over if something goes wrong.

“Apparently when you send something to Mars, you’re not supposed to lose the data,” Hitz quipped during the light-hearted recap discussion with Nguyen. That nightmare almost did happen in one of their final dress rehearsals, where both data streams went missing, but it turned out it was just a problem with the simulation program.

Either way, Nguyen was anxious about the streams continuing to operate through the high acceleration (9gs at most) and high temperature of the mission. Of course, the landing was a success and the data streams are functioning. Today, according to them, NetApp continues to work with the JPL regarding the transmission and interpretation of the constant data Curiosity is sending.

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