How NASA uses quantum computing for space travel and robotics

Quantum computing is still in its infancy, even though the idea of a quantum computer was developed some thirty years ago. But there are a whole load of pioneering organizations (like Google) that are exploring how this potentially revolutionary technology could help them solve complex problems that modern-day computers just aren’t capable of doing at any useful speed.

One such organization is NASA, whose use of D-Wave Systems quantum computing machines is helping it research better and safer methods of space travel, air traffic controls and missions involving sending robots to far-off places, explained Davide Venturelli, a science operations manager at NASA Ames Research Center, Universities Space Research Association. I’ll be speaking with Venturelli on stage at Structure Data 2015 from March 18-19 in New York City and we’ll be sure to cover how NASA envisions the future of quantum computing.

The basic idea of quantum computing is that quantum bits, or qubits — which can exist in more than two states and be represented as both a 0 and 1 simultaneously — can be used to greatly boost computing power compared to even today’s most powerful super computers. This contrasts with the modern-day binary computing model, in which the many transistors contained in silicon chips can be either switched on or off and can thus only exist in two states, expressed as a 0 or 1.

With the development of D-Wave Systems machines that have quantum computing capabilities (although researchers argue they are not true quantum computers along the lines of the ones dreamed up on pen and paper in the early 1980s), scientists and engineers can now attempt to solve much more complex tasks without having to perform the type of experiments used to generate quantum phenomena, explained Venturelli. However, these machines are just the tip of the quantum iceberg, and Venturelli still pays attention to ground-breaking research that may lead to better quantum devices.

NASA hopes to use the machines to solve optimization problems, which in its most basic terms means finding the best solution out of many solutions. One such example of an optimization problem NASA has focussed on deals with air-traffic management in which scientists try to “optimize the routes” of planes in order to “make sure the landing and taking off of airplanes in terminals are as efficient as possible,” said Venturelli. If the scientists are able to route air traffic in the best possible way, there’s a good chance they can reduce the dangers of congested skies.

Davide Venturelli

Davide Venturelli

NASA also wants to use quantum computing to help with automated planning and scheduling, a subset of artificial intelligence that NASA uses to plan out robotic missions to other planets. NASA typically plans out these type of endeavors ten years in advance, said Venturelli.

The goal is to plan out the mission of the robots far in advance because realtime communication with the robots just isn’t feasible given how far away other planets are from the Earth. Using quantum optimization, NASA scientists will have new tools to basically forecast what may occur during the mission and what would be the best possible plan of attack for the robots to do their work.

“We have some missions where we imagine sending multiple robots to planets and these robots will need to coordinate and will need to do operations like landing and such without realtime communication,” said Venturelli.

Scientists need to “maximize the lifetime of the batteries” used by the robots as they perform tasks on the planets that may include drilling or using infrared thermometers to record temperatures, so careful planning of how the robots do their tasks is needed in order to ensure that no time is wasted. This all involves a lot of variables that normal computers just aren’t up-to-speed to process and could be a fit for quantum computing.

“[The robot] has to figure out what is the best schedule and figure out if he can recharge and when to go in a region where it is dark and a region where there is water,” said Venturelli. “We need to preplan the mission.”

With rocket launch, SpaceX to be first private firm to travel beyond low-Earth orbit

SpaceX is on its way to delivering NASA’s DISCOVR satellite to orbit after a succesfull rocket launch today, a feat that will make it the first private company to travel beyond the inner ring of Earth’s orbit. The satellite will travel 1 million miles to a location between the Earth and the Sun, where it will spot solar flares up to an hour before they hit Earth and take daily images of the planet.

How NASA launched its web infrastructure into the cloud

Among U.S. government agencies, the adoption of cloud computing hasn’t been moving full steam ahead, to say the least. Even though 2011 saw the Obama administration unveil the cloud-first initiative that called for government agencies to update their old legacy IT systems to the cloud, it hasn’t been the case that these agencies have made great strides in modernizing their infrastructure.

In fact, a September 2014 U.S. Government Accountability Office report on federal agencies and cloud computing explained that while several agencies boosted the amount of IT budget cash they spend on cloud services since 2012 (the GAO studied seven agencies in 2012 and followed up on them in 2014), “the overall increase was just 1 percent.” The report stated that the agencies’ small increase in cloud spending compared to their overall budget was due to the fact that they had “legacy investments in operations and maintenance” and were not going to move those over to the cloud unless they were slated to be either replaced or upgraded.

But there’s at least a few diamonds in the rough. The CIA recently found a home for its cloud on Amazon Web Services. And, in 2012, NASA contracted out with cloud service broker InfoZen for a five-year project worth $40 million to migrate and maintain NASA’s web infrastructure — including including NASA.gov — to the Amazon cloud.

This particular initiative, known as the NASA Web Enterprise Services Technology (WestPrime) contract, was singled out in July 2013 as a successful cloud-migration project in an otherwise scathing NASA Office of Inspector General audit report on NASA’s progress in moving to cloud technology.

Moving to the cloud

In August, InfoZen detailed the specifics of its project and claimed it took 22 weeks to migrate 110 NASA websites and applications to the cloud. As a result of the project’s success, the Office of Inspector General recommended that NASA departments use the WestPrime contract or a smilier contract in order to meet policy requirements and move to the cloud.

The WestPrime contract primarily deals with NASA’s web applications and doesn’t take into account high-performance computing endeavors like rocket-ship launches, explained Julie Davila, the InfoZen cloud architect and DevOps lead who helped with the migration. However, don’t let that lead you to believe that migrating NASA’s web services was a simple endeavor.

Just moving NASA’s “flagship portal” of nasa.gov, which contains roughly 150 applications and around 200,000 pages of content, took about 13 weeks to move, said Roopangi Kadakia, a Web Services Executive at NASA. And not only did NASA.gov and its related applications have to get moved, they also had to be upgraded from old technology.

NASA was previously using an out-of-support propriety content management system and used InfoZen to help move that over to a “cloudy Drupal open-source system,” she said, which helped modernize the website so it could withstand periods of heavy traffic.

“NASA.gov has been one of the top visited places in the world from a visitor perspective,” said Kadakia. When a big event like the landing of the Mars Rover occurs, NASA can experience traffic that “would match or go above CNN or other large highly traffic sites,” she said.

NASA's Rover Curiosity lands on Mars

NASA’s Rover Curiosity lands on Mars

NASA has three cable channels that the agency runs continually on its site, so it wasn’t just looking for a cloud infrastructure that’s tailored to handle only worst-case scenarios; it needed something that can keep up with the media-rich content NASA consistently streams, she said.

The space agency uses [company]Amazon[/company] Web Services to provide the backbone for its new Drupal content management system, and has worked out an interesting way to pay for the cloud, explained Kadakia. NASA’s uses a contract vehicle called Solutions for Enterprise-Wide Procurement (SEWP) that functions like a drawdown account between NASA and Amazon.

The contract vehicle takes in account that the cost of paying for cloud services can fluctuate based on needs and performance (a site might get a spike in traffic on one day and then have it drop the next day). Kadakia estimates that NASA could end up spending around $700,000 to $1 million for AWS for the year; the agency can put in $1.5 million into the account that can cover any unforeseen costs, and any money not spent can be saved.

“I think of it like my service card,” she said. “I can put 50 bucks in it. I may not use it all and I won’t lose that money.”

Updating the old

NASA also had to sift through old applications on its system that were “probably not updated from a tech perspective for seven-to-ten years,” said Kadakia. Some of the older applications’ underlying architecture and security risks weren’t properly documented, so NASA had to do an audit of these applications to “mitigate all critical vulnerabilities,” some of which its users didn’t even know about.

“They didn’t know all of the functionalities of the app,” said Kadakia. “Do we assume it works [well]? That the algorithms are working well? That was a costly part of the migration.”

After moving those apps, NASA had to define a change-management process for its applications so that each time something got altered or updated, there was documentation to help keep track of the changes.

To help with the nitty gritty details of transferring those applications to AWS and setting up new servers, NASA used the Ansible configuration-management tool, said Davila. When InfoZen came, the apps were stored in a co-located data center where they weren’t being managed well, he explained, and many server operating systems weren’t being updated, leaving them vulnerable to security threats.

Without the configuration-management tool, Davila said that it would “probably take us a few days to patch every server in the environment” using shell scripts. Now, the team can “can patch all Linux servers in, like, 15 minutes.”

NASA currently has a streamlined devops environment in which spinning up new servers is faster than before, he explained. Whereas it used to take NASA roughly one-to-two hours to load up an application stack, it now takes around ten minutes.

What about the rest of the government?

Kadakia claimed that moving to the cloud has saved NASA money, especially as the agency cleaned out its system and took a hard look at how old applications were originally set up.

The agency is also looking at optimizing its applications to fit in with the more modern approach of coupled-together application development, she explained. This could include updating or developing applications that share the same data sets, which would have previously been a burden, if not impossible, to do.

A historical photo of the quad, showing Hangar One in the back before its shell was removed. Photo courtesy of NASA.

A historical photo of the quad, showing Hangar One in the back before its shell was removed. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Larry Sweet, NASA’s CIO, has taken notice of the cloud-migration project’s success and sent a memo to the entire NASA organization urging other NASA properties to consider the WestPrime contract first if they want to move to the cloud, Kadakia said.

While it’s clear that NASA’s web services have benefited from being upgraded and moved to the cloud, it still remains hazy how other government agencies will follow suit.

David Linthicum, a senior vice president at Cloud Technology Partners and Gigaom analyst, said he believes there isn’t a sense of urgency for these agencies to covert to cloud infrastructure.

“The problem is that there has to be a political will,” said Linthicum. “I just don’t think it exists.”

Much like President Obama appointed an Ebola czar during the Ebola outbreak this fall, there should be a cloud czar who is responsible for overseeing the rejiggering of agency IT systems, he said.

“A lot of [government] IT leaders don’t really like the cloud right now,” said Linthicum. “They don’t believe it will move them in the right direction.”

Part of the problem stems from the contractors that the government is used to working with. These organizations like [company]Lockheed Martin[/company] and [company]Northrop Grumman[/company] “don’t have cloud talent” and are not particularly suited to guiding agencies looking to move to the cloud.

Still, as NASA’s web services and big sites are now part of the cloud, perhaps other agencies will begin taking notice.

Images courtesy of NASA

We have liftoff: NASA launches its carbon monitoring satellite

After a short 24-hour delay, NASA launched a rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California Wednesday morning, which contains a satellite and a spectrometer that will monitor carbon emissions from on high. The tool measures the colors of sunlight that bounce off of the earth — the intensity of the colors indicates how much carbon dioxide there as the light passes through the atmosphere. Check out this article for more on how cutting-edge tech in the skies is seeking answers to the world’s changing climate.

NASA to send ‘mousetronauts’ to the International Space Station

Mice live roughly up to two years. Send them to the International Space Station for 6 months, and you can potentially tell the effects space has on a mammal over a quarter of its life; information that could inform future missions to Mars and other distant planets. NASA is currently working on housing for the “mousetronauts,” as Elon Musk likes to call them, and plans to send them to the ISS later this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.