How NASA Would Use Amazon Web Services To Save Matt Damon In ‘The Martian’

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NASA’s JPL chief technology officer explains Amazon’s role if Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’ happened in real life

The producers behind the Hollywood adaptation of Andy Weir’s ‘The Martian’ made no secret of product placing the technology that would save stranded astronaut Mark Watney from potential doom on Mars.

GoPro cameras on Watney’s space suit made multiple appearances, and Cisco-powered live video feeds from NASA to Mars also helped Watney grasp on to the thinning straws of hope.

But in real life, another underlying technology used by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) would have been vital to saving Watney’s life: Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud computing division of Amazon.com.

Speaking to TechWeekEurope at AWS’ annual re:Invent conference in Las Vegas, Tom Soderstrom, JPL’s chief technology officer, said that cloud computing would have been instrumental in bringing Mark Watney home.

Curiosity Rover

NASA
NASA mission control

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, founded in 1936, had already been using AWS for some time now, and the cloud service was notably used on the Curiosity Mars rover mission. AWS was implemented to stream the images and video associated with Curiosity’s landing on the Red Planet.

Cloud computing allowed JPL to provision capacity with speed, and deliver these images to both NASA scientists for review and analysis and then the eagerly awaiting public. NASA made use of a number of AWS services including EC2, S3, SimpleDB, Route 53, and CloudFront for the Curiosity mission.

NASANASA and JPL distributed the content from AWS regions globally, using Elastic Load Balancers to make sure the video and photo feed reached its audience without problems all over the world.

“The power of the cloud is the power of computation,” said Soderstrom. “So at JPL, when we see a problem, we try to figure out all the solutions, and run them in the cloud, using up all the compute capacity available to us.”

On the silver screen, we are shown the character of Rich Purnell, a scientist who slaves alone for days over cups of coffee devising the ‘Purnell Manoeuvre’ that would allow Ares 3 crew to return to Mars orbit to save Watney.

But in real life? This problem would have been dished out to scientists eager to help all around the globe, and use the supreme computational powers of cloud computing to work out the solution.

Crowd sourcing

“Using the cloud, you can also reach out to experts without having to let them in to our secure environments, but do it in the cloud,” said Soderstrom. “So using the computational power of the cloud, you can run models, try things out, organise solutions, do some crowd sourcing of really smart people who would give us input. That would be one way to save [Watney].”

But in The Martian, Watney also has the problem of getting to the site of the Ares 4 landing, and using the supply module already there to reach orbit.

NASA
The New York Times’ Curiosity Rover tracker uses data from AWS

“We would be able to chart a path for [Watney] to drive, a better path than what he had,” said Soderstrom. Using the satellites in orbit around Mars, which would be sending images of the terrain back to Earth, scientists would access the data via AWS and help Watney attain the best route possible to the Schiaparelli Crater.

“We would be using satellites to look at the ground on Mars. So, it’s really about the collaborative approach that the cloud can help with in this situation.”

Shortly after TechWeekEurope spoke to Soderstrom, the CTO headed up a re:Invent session in front of hundreds of attendees, explaining the importance of AWS to the Jet Propulsion Lab.

It’s clear that the same creativeness that Watney uses to survive on Mars is used by JPL every day to push forward the boundaries of science and space travel.

“Innovation has been our bread and butter for a long time,” Soderstrom told the audience. “And scientists want access to as much capacity as they want.” With cloud computing, this is possible.

IoT

Soderstrom told TechWeekEurope that, in the future, the Internet of Things will play a vital role at JPL. However, if an astronaut was stranded on Mars now, there’d sadly be no help from the IoT.

“I wish the Internet of Things was up in space, we could have moved the rover for him,” joked Soderstrom.

But it won’t be too long to wait. With Amazon releasing its own Internet of Things platform this week, and Soderstrom claiming IoT will “affect NASA” in the future, the possibilities of cloud computing and sensors on spacecraft could be limitless.

Main image © 20th Century Fox

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