Open-Source Science in the Cloud Collaboration

Mark Altaweel

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Recently, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) released a new open source and science tool called the Multi-Mission Algorithm and Analysis Platform (MAAP). Combining NASA and ESA, these two agencies lead the world in providing satellite and remote sensing data for understanding the Earth’s environment.

With MAAP, the data are now combined and offer users a large body of data that can now better understand how our planet is changing through a common user interface. The tool is currently limited in covering Earth Science topics using data from NASA and ESA, but this will greatly expand over the next year. 

First Project: Calculating Aboveground Biomass

The first project under this umbrella is a focus on calculating aboveground biomass, a major area of concern as climate change not only affects biomass but biomass plays an important role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.

Map showing circumboreal forest biomass.
Circummboreal forest biomass density was mapped at a spatial resolution of 30 meters using data from NASA’s ICESat-2, NASA/USGS Landsat-8, and the ESA Copernicus Digital Elevation Model (DEM).

The new data allow scientists to calculate how much carbon is potential stored and how loss of biomass could affect future climate change. While this initial effort focuses on biomass, combined NASA and ESA satellite data will be released, including analytical outputs from these datasets, focusing on a variety of Earth Science areas, particularly in monitoring environmental change.

The collaboration represents the culmination of the Join Program and Planning Group established between the two agencies that will focus on releasing both data and algorithms. By Spring of 2022, new data and algorithms will be released that will expand current offerings greatly. The platform also enables collaboration between scientists.

The tool utilises a cloud-based infrastructure to provide high performance computing for algorithm application but also for data storage.[1][2]

Making Earth Observation Data Easy to Use and Access

A key challenge addressed in the platform is to make data interoperable and easy to use for researchers. This is why satellite data but also interpretive results could be obtained directly, seamlessly combining data from the two space agencies without having to have the user select needed data sources.

The platform is a collaborative environment that allows aggregate data sets to be brought together. Data discovery is also facilitated through tools within the platform that allow researchers to more easily find the types of data or results they are interested in. The tools built around biomass will also be used to provide lessons on expanding collaboration to other areas in Earth Science.

Logo showing small satellites representing earth observation data for the joint NASA and ESA collaboration called MAAP.
Logo for the joint NASA-ESA MAAP platform. Image: ESA.

Satellite data and outputs, including the application of BIOMASS, NASA/Indian Space Research Organisation (NISAR), African Synthetic Aperture Radar (AfriSAR), and Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) system satellite missions, will be accessible, including algorithms that allow cross utilisation of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data and light detection and ranging (Lidar) data. By providing interpretive results, users will not have to use the raw data files from such systems.[3]

An Open Format for Earth Observation Data and Analysis

The broader goal for projects such as MAAP is to bring national space agencies, or even cross-national agencies, and their data together in an open format that provides free data and algorithms for scientists, including the computational tools for analysis.

Space agencies such as the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and NASA are potentially likely partners in a similar way to ESA and NASA in creating common interoperable tools.

However, there are pitfalls with collaboration, particularly between Russia, China, and the US space agencies, given challenges and even laws such as the Wolf Amendment that prohibit some collaboration.

On the other hand, given the global challenges and the need to face crises such as climate change, there might be a need for closer collaboration at least in some areas of data sharing among even competitive and rival national agencies. In fact, in future years it might be necessary to expand collaborations to private companies that are increasingly providing space services.

We might see in coming years that more Earth Observation data is held by private companies. These data will be potentially invaluable for some environmental assessment and agreements may need to be made to enable the use of such data without detriment to science.

A Need for Wider Collaboration with Earth Observation Data

The collaboration between NASA and ESA is encouraging, and a direct result of that is MAAP, a recent tool that provides combined data from satellite remote sensing provided by both space agencies. The tool also makes it easy to do analysis and provides an easy way to measure important metrics, with the current focus on biomass but that focus is set to expand to other Earth Science areas.

While this is encouraging, national space agencies may need to also consider wider collaboration, including between rival countries, if we are to share and utilise data efficiently so as to maximize our potential to better observe environmental change. The challenges we face on climate and other environmental areas will require major countries to more closely cooperate.

The ability for these countries to collaborate in Earth observation just might be one of the most important collaborations to enable better assessments on how our planet will change in the decades to come.  

References

[1]    For more on MAAP, see: https://www.earthdata.nasa.gov/esds/maap and https://earthdata.nasa.gov/esds/maap

[2]    The MAAP tool could be utilised through the Biomass Earth data Dashboard:  The tool is currently limited in covering Earth Science topics using data from NASA and ESA, but this will greatly expand over the next year. 

[3]    For more on algorithms developed in MAAP, see:  Albinet, C.; Whitehurst, A.S.; Jewell, L.A.; Bugbee, K.; Laur, H.; Murphy, K.J.; Frommknecht, B.; Scipal, K.; Costa, G.; Jai, B.; et al. A Joint ESA-NASA Multi-Mission Algorithm and Analysis Platform (MAAP) for Biomass, NISAR, and GEDI. Surv Geophys 201940, 1017–1027, doi:10.1007/s10712-019-09541-z.

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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