NASA adds sites for Polar Lander

NASA developed a traffic plan in preparation for curious onlookers seeking real-time sights and sounds from the Mars Polar Lander, which descended toward the planet Dec. 3. The space agency created scores of mirror World Wide Web sites to ease congestion.

During the 1997 Mars Pathfinder landing, NASA maintained 20 mirror sites, which quickly became overwhelmed. This time, NASA partnered with universities, companies and other organizations to provide 80 mirror sites where data received from the Mars Lander could be accessed.

Cameras and microphones on the lander were designed to send back real-time video and sound data for NASA to post on its main Mars page (mars.jpl.nasa.gov).

"We were caught off guard last time," said Kirk Goodall, the Mars Web engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who manages the Internet sites for the Mars Polar Lander and coordinated Internet activities for the Pathfinder mission. "[Pathfinder] woke up the importance of the Internet for bringing NASA missions to the public in real time."

If NASA's Mars page becomes overwhelmed by traffic during the current mission, the agency would automatically send visitors to one of two mirror sites maintained at NASA. Users also could choose to go to one of 20 other mirror sites that are updated frequently, including two major corporate sites maintained by Silicon Graphics Inc. and Internet search engine Excite Inc.

In addition, NASA has an agreement with Adero Inc., Boston, to copy the NASA page on 60 servers worldwide during the Mars Polar Lander event until the space shuttle launch scheduled for Dec. 11, said Brian Dunbar, a NASA spokesman.

"It's technology we'd like to test to see how we can keep our Web pages more available," Dunbar said.

Adero has a distribution network of servers in 28 countries that cache content so users in other countries can access Internet data locally, said Joe Bai, Adero's chief technology officer.

"NASA gets a significant amount of overseas viewers," said Sarah Long, Adero's vice president of operations. "Most of them will be looking at us."

A large portion of NASA's traffic comes from Japan, so the company planned to use its servers in Japan to automatically divert Japanese Internet users from the NASA site to the mirror site closest to their networks.

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Eavesdropping on Mars

The $327.6 million Mars Polar Lander, launched Jan. 3 from Cape Canaveral Air Station, Fla., is equipped with a microphone, camera and probes to collect Martian soil samples. Its 90-day mission: to search for near-surface ice and possible surface records of cyclic climate change.

Internet administrators receiving data from the lab plan to release it to the public as quickly as possible, said Kirk Goodall, the Mars Web engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "The day of having an instantaneous feed from Mars is not going to come until we have better communications with Mars," Goodall said.

NASA engineers are working on plans to launch a network of communications satellites around Mars, called the Mars Network, that would relay data to antennas on Earth at a high rate and provide real-time data. "We're advancing towards a virtual presence on Mars," Goodall said.

Among the devices related to the current Mars landing are cameras and microphones designed to send real-time video and sound data. In addition, two small probes, called Deep Space 2, piggybacked on the lander. The probes were to determine if water or ice is present - an indicator that Mars may once have supported life.

Three antennas that make up NASA's Deep Space Network were to receive data from the Polar Lander. The antennas are located in Goldstone, Calif.; Canberra, Australia; and Madrid, Spain. The data then was to be sent to a processing system at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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