Space Agency Says Cloud Will Speed Galaxy Mapping


The European Space Agency says the Gaia galaxy-mapping project will cut its computing costs by 50 percent by using cloud computing

The European Space Agency (ESA) is considering a plan to use Amazon’s hosted computing service EC2 as an alternative to the in-house supercomputers needed to crunch the data from an ambitious project to map one thousand million stars.

The agency announced the latest stage of an ongoing investigation with cloud computing specialist The Server Labs (TSL) on the feasibility of moving data processing tasks associated with its Gaia galaxy-mapping project from in-house systems to Amazon EC2. In May this year, TSL announced that it had completed one study into migrating data processing from Gaia to Amazon cloud services.

The investigation has already revealed that cloud computing has advantages in terms of cost, scalability and timing. “The Gaia Cloud experiment has been very successful for us. It indicates that bringing the data processing to The Cloud can provide us with savings of up 50 percent compared to using in house hardware. An additional advantage is that it gives us the ability to scale to far more processors than we could have in house which means essentially that we can finish the job sooner,” said William O’Mullane, Gaia Science manager for ESA.

In a follow-up study, TSL plans to further test the capacity of Amazon’s data processing ability and “the horizontal scalability of Gaia’s data processing grid to limits impossible with the current in-house cluster”. “In this new science project TSL will run ESA’s Gaia data processing in Amazon’s Cloud, incorporating RightScale’s and Oracle’s technology. RightScale, a leading provider in Cloud Computing management, enables the deployment and management of business-critical applications across multiple Clouds,” TSL said in a statement.

The Gaia mission main objective to create a census of the starts and analyse the evolution of the Milky Way. “The data collected by Gaia will allow astronomers to understand more clearly than ever before where, when and how stars form as well as how they enrich the space around them when they die,” according to the Space Agency. “Gaia will also provide the most accurate distances and motions for about one thousand million stars, thus giving astronomers a unique view of the structure and evolution of the Milky Way as a whole.”

The Gaia spacecraft, dominated by a large near-circular sun-shield, is due to be launched in late-2011 from Kourou, French Guiana, on a Russian Soyuz launcher. According to the ESA, the entire mission, including launch, payload and spacecraft operations over 5 years will cost about 550 million Euros.

“After launch, Gaia will take less than 2 months to cruise to the Lagrangian point known as L2. The L2 point is approximately 1.5 million kilometres away from Earth in the anti-Sun direction (about four times the distance to the Moon). This position, a local gravitational equilibrium, keeps pace with the Earth’s yearly revolution around the Sun, and offers the least-obstructed view of the cosmos,” the ESA states.

In July, the European Space Agency opened a new facility in Oxfordshire which is focusing on a range of projects including a plan to use space data to help track climate change and improve road and rail transport.

Space projects, such as NASA’s recent deliberate collision on the moon, tend to involve gathering and processing large amounts of data, and much of it is expected to move to the cloud. NASA’s staellite data of Earth is being used to track global warming.

According to government figures, the UK space sector currently contributes £6.5 billion to the UK economy, supporting around 68,000 direct and indirect jobs. “The recession busting trends of the space industry has enabled it to successfully ride the downturn, and it is also predicted to grow by an average of 5 percent per year until 2020,” the department of business innovation and skills (BIS) said in a recent statement.


Gaia spacecraft. Picture: ESA

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