NASA Turns to the Cloud for Help With Next-Generation Earth Missions

However, with missions like SWOT and NISAR, that won’t be feasible for most scientists. If someone wanted to download a day’s worth of information from SWOT onto their computer, they’d need 20 laptops, each capable of storing a terabyte of data. If a researcher wanted to download four days’ worth of data from NISAR, it would take about a year to perform on an average home internet connection. Working with data stored in the cloud means scientists won’t have to buy huge hard drives to download the data or wait months as numerous large files download to their system. “Processing and storing high volumes of data in the cloud will enable a cost-effective, efficient approach to the study of big-data problems,” said Lee-Lueng Fu, JPL project scientist for SWOT.

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

NASA engineers have already taken advantage of 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 looks at changes to Earth’s surface, although it uses a different type of radar instrument than the ones NISAR will use. Working with Sentinel-1 data in the cloud, engineers produced a colorized map showing the change in 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 tried to do this outside the cloud, you’d have had to buy all those thousands of machines.”

Cloud computing won’t replace all of the ways in which researchers work with science datasets, but at least for Earth science, it’s certainly gaining ground, said Alex Gardner, a NISAR science team member at JPL who studies glaciers and sea level rise. He envisions that most of his analyses will happen elsewhere in the near future instead of on his laptop or personal server. “I fully expect in five to 10 years, I won’t have much of a hard drive on my computer and I will be exploring the new firehose of data in the cloud,” he said.

To explore NASA’s publicly available datasets, visit: