NASA sites bear Mars load

National Aeronautic and Space Administration

The excitement of the Mars Spirit rover landing late Jan. 3 has put a strain on NASA's Web portal, which has received more than 1 billion hits since the announcement of a successful landing on the Red Planet.

Spirit began transmitting data and images back to Earth early Jan. 4.

Brian Dunbar, NASA's Internet services manager, confirmed that the Web portal — which includes the agency's home page, Mars program site and Spaceflight Web site — topped the 1 billion mark for hits Jan. 6.

By comparison, the portal received 2.8 billion hits in all of 2003. In 1997, the NASA Pathfinder mission to Mars generated 47 million hits in the first 24 hours.

"We knew this mission would be a great opportunity to bring the excitement of exploring Mars directly to people," said Michelle Viotti, manager of NASA's Mars Public Engagement program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Despite reports that download times on the portal have slowed, it is holding up under the heavy traffic, Dunbar said.

"Every test that we do seems to be going fine," he said. "Our servers are humming."

However, the traffic has caused the sites to lag in performance, according to Keynote Systems Inc., a monitor of federal Web sites. Aside from the slower download times, visitors to the site have been greeted by a message indicating that some of the high-demand content is unavailable because of the increased traffic.

Keynote officials reported that home page download times nearly doubled from Jan. 3 to Jan. 6 for NASA's main Web site, www.nasa.gov, and the Mars Exploration Rover Mission site, marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov. Download times on those sites increased from their normal range of 1.8 to 2.2 seconds to as high as 4 seconds, according to Keynote.

"While the images of the Mars surface are colorful and rich in detail, not all curiosity-seekers are able to view them due to the high demand," said Roopak Patel, senior Internet analyst at Keynote.

The sites started to return to faster performance late in the afternoon of Jan. 6, Patel said.

According to NASA statistics, visitors had downloaded nearly 15 terabytes of information from the portal, a staggering amount of data that would require more than 20,000 CDs for storage.

NASA's current portal was brought online less than a year ago, with a commercial hosting infrastructure that can be increased to accommodate short-term increases in traffic. The portal's prime contractor is eTouch Systems Corp. of Fremont, Calif., and Speedera Networks Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., delivers the NASA Web content over its global network.

The Mars Exploration Rover Mission Web content has been incorporated into the existing infrastructure that was constructed in 1997 for the Pathfinder mission.

"The portal was designed technically and graphically to enable NASA to communicate directly with members of the public, especially young people," Dunbar said.

Movies and interactive features that allow users to virtually explore Mars may soon be added to the site, he said.

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