Mixing supercomputing, social networking for a better view of Earth

NASA broke some new computing ground two years ago when it launched its NASA Earth Exchange (NEX), a supercomputing-powered, social networking-linked virtual laboratory designed to speed the study of Earth sciences.

Now, it’s taking its collaborative approach further, opening up the facility to other researchers.

The idea behind NEX is to give researchers a comprehensive look at the Earth, through high-resolution Landsat satellite images. The Landsat program has been collecting data since the first of its satellites was launched in 1972 — and that was part of the problem. With that much data, it could take months for researchers to gather and analyze data sets, and they had to develop high-end computational methods in the process, NASA said on its website.

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Now, they can do that in a matter of hours with NEX, which combines NASA’s supercomputing capacity and an array of analytics and visualization tools with an internal social networking platform for sharing data and results.

"NEX greatly simplifies researchers' access to and analysis of high-resolution data like Landsat," Tsengdar Lee, high-end computing program manager at NASA, said in the announcement.

In the virtual lab, for instance, scientists can piece together high-resolution images of global vegetation patterns totaling more than a half-trillion pixels in about 10 hours, NASA said. They can combine sensor data from NASA and other agencies, share their results instantly via NEX’s social media platform, and develop interdisciplinary studies of what’s going on with the planet.

Rama Nemani, a senior Earth scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., where NEX was developed, said the science community is being urged to not only study changes in climate and project what might happen next, but also to develop ways of dealing with the impact. NEX offers a way "to change the research paradigm by bringing large data holdings and supercomputing capabilities together, so researchers have everything they need in one place," he said.

By allowing other researchers into the NEX environment, scientists can save time and costs, while improving their results, NASA said.

Landsat was launched 40 years ago by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, and has accumulated millions of images. (This NASA page, for example, features a time-lapse video of Landsat images showing Maricopa County, Ariz., during its 1972-2011 population boom.)

And here’s a collection of Landsat images depicting the sprawl in Las Vegas since 1972.


Currently on Landsat 7, the next launch, of what’s called the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, is scheduled for February 2013.


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