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Published November 20, 2021 | Published
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Nebulae: Deep-Space Computing Clouds


Science exploration is about extending practical reach and intellectual assessment to increasingly remote and operationally challenging environments. Historically, as a pragmatic consideration, each space mission has been approached as a self-contained endeavor, with specific science objectives and a well defined resource envelope within which to accomplish those objectives. This paradigm has served well, particularly for the unprecedented risk management challenges that attend first-of-a-kind exploration activities. However, challenges of efficiency and sustainability inevitably appear, calling for new ideas on how space missions can build on each other, not only in terms of science yield and understanding, but through incrementally deployed services and infrastructure, such that each new endeavor need not self-carry all the required resources. This thinking is the inspiration behind the Nebulae set of concepts for deploying computing, data storage, networking, and cloud services as infrastructure to remote regions of the solar system, in robust and scalable fashion. Nebulae does not represent a single concept. We unpack the idea into multiple forms: 1) Vigilant Instruments, pushing on today's concepts for onboard science data analysis; 2) Data Server in the Sky, to be as reliable and trusted as any ground-based archive; 3) Observing System in the Sky, consonant with continuous spatial and temporal observing coverage of Earth as a System; and 4) the complementary Data Cycler for physically returning remotely acquired data to Earth in ongoing if not immediate fashion, for additional completeness and robustness. We examine several use cases, ranging from Mars (where the advantages of having multiple platforms active concurrently, e.g., for relay operations, is already well demonstrated), to astrophysics (for the robust capture of relevant detections), to Earth as a special case (given that the communications challenges of deep space do not apply). We also ask the retrospective What-If? question: "What additional value-added science might historical and/or current space missions have accomplished if Nebulae-style capability had been available to those missions?" Results of this exercise not only further illuminate the use cases, but could lead to risk-managed enhancements of flying missions, or concepts for new near-term technology demonstrations, even as we pursue the Nebulae concept itself as a more strategic opportunity. Finally, we examine extant capabilities and emerging technologies for computing, data storage, networking, and cloud services, and project their availability for deployment within future Nebulae instantiations, describing the possibilities over the next few decades, to stimulate pragmatic excitement, and the beginning of strategic planning. Our aim is to shine a light, from our perspective, that today's science mission exploration paradigm, having served us as a community in exemplary fashion, simply will not scale as the reach of our exploration extends further, as it must, into more remote, unknown, and fascinating environments. We offer new concepts to address that reality via a shift to a more sustainable exploration paradigm—Nebulae—within the spirit of community engagement and discussion.

Additional Information

Study Report prepared for the W. M. Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) Study Start Date: August 26, 2019. Study End Date: September 4, 2020.

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Published - Nebulae_final_report.pdf


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October 5, 2023
October 24, 2023