NASA moves earth science tools, platform to the cloud

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the number of Amazon Web Services' government customers. 

NASA’s OpenNEX is one of the latest federal research projects moving to the cloud to improve collaboration with the academic, public and private sectors.  

In doing so, the space agency is using Amazon Web Services to make terabytes worth of climate and Earth science data available to researchers, app developers, academia and the public. The first data sets became available in March and include temperature, precipitation and climate change projections, as well as data processing tools from NASA’s Earth Exchange (NEX), a research and collaboration platform from  NASA’s Advanced Supercomputing Facility at Ames Research Center in California. 

NEX combines state-of-the-art supercomputing, Earth system modeling, workflow management and NASA remote-sensing data. Through NEX, users can explore and analyze large Earth science data sets, run and share modeling algorithms, collaborate on new or existing projects and exchange workflows and results within and among other science communities, according to NASA. 

NEX’s tools and utilities include analytical tools, database management systems, data manipulation tools and libraries, workflow engines, and semantic Web tools.

NASA’s OpenNEX partnership with Amazon gives scientists access to NASA-provided, ready-to-use data and knowledge encapsulated in Amazon Machine Images or virtual machines. OpenNEX users can work with the VMs outside of NASA's computing infrastructure, minimizing impacts to NASA while enhancing community participation, the agency said. 

NEX data is available for free but only provides computational resources to NASA-funded investigators. Additionally, AWS users will have to pay to use Amazon’s cloud-powered services to analyze the data, NASA spokesman Steve Cole told VentureBeat

Many government agencies are using AWS and similar cloud services to manage their big data and enable collaboration. According to an Amazon spokesperson, AWS has 600-plus U.S. government customers, including NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Open  

Supercomputing via the cloud reduces researchers’ logistical limitations such as download bandwidth, storage and on-premise processing power. While there is no single solution or strategy for managing big data, cloud computing is an option available to agencies that don’t want to invest in hardware and additional software systems. 

NASA is no stranger to collaborative research with the scientific community and the general public. Its International Space Apps Challenge — billed as “the largest hackathon ever” — drew 770 proposals. Many of the proposals “had direct tangible benefits” to existing NASA programs, including 40 apps for NASA’s Asteroid program and 37 for its Spot the ISS Station challenge. 

One of NASA’s most recently created virtual institutes, which brings individuals together in a collaborative virtual setting to solve complex problems, is NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute. SSERVI address scientific questions about the moon, near-Earth asteroids, the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos and their near space environments.

"We are excited to grow an ecosystem of researchers and developers who can help us solve important environmental research problems," said Rama Nemani, principal scientist for the NEX project at Ames. "Our goal is that people can easily gain access to and use a multitude of data analysis services quickly through AWS to add knowledge and open-source tools for others' benefit."

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Pandemic tests electronic records management

    Between the rush enable more virtual collaboration, stalled digitization of archived records and managing records that reside in datasets, records management executives are sorting through new challenges.

  • boy learning at home (Travelpixs/

    Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

Stay Connected