Researchers at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA/JPL) wanted to solve two different challenges—providing public access to vast amounts of Mars-related exploration images, and engaging the public in activities related to NASA’s Mars Exploration Program in order to encourage learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Using a variety of technologies, NASA/JPL created its new BeAMartian Web site. The site provides entertaining and engaging ways to view and interact with information delivered by Mars-based rovers and orbiters. The goal is to let the public participate in exploration, making contributions to data processing and analysis. It also provides a platform that lets developers collaborate with NASA on solutions that can help scientists analyze vast amounts of information that can be used to understand the universe and support future space exploration.Situation
Beginning with its own launch in the late 1950s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been at the forefront of efforts to explore and understand what lies beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Many of NASA’s recent efforts have been focused on Mars exploration. The agency’s Martian ventures have generated extraordinary information gathered and transmitted by its Mars Exploration Rovers, including Spirit and Opportunity, which have traveled over the planet’s surface with cameras, sensors, and other instruments.
The sheer volume of information sent back by the rovers and orbiters is unmatched in the history of space exploration. Hundreds of thousands of detailed photographs are now stored in NASA databases, and new photos are transmitted every day. For NASA, this huge influx of information coincides with another important agency process: finding ways of getting the public more engaged in the excitement of space exploration, and encouraging young people to develop the science, technology, engineering, and math skills—collectively known as the STEM fields of academic and professional disciplines—that will be needed to move space exploration forward.
“We have so much data that it’s actually hard to process it all,” says Dr. Jeff Norris, Supervisor of the Planning Software Systems at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.¹
Michelle Viotti, Manager for the Mars Public Engagement Program at NASA, says the agency wanted to figure out how to engage more people in discovery and learning. “We really need the next generation of explorers,” she says. “There’s so much data coming back from Mars. Having a wider crowd look at the data, classify it, and help understand its meaning is very important.”²
For NASA/JPL, an obvious approach would be to use the power of the Web to attract a global audience to review its rich imagery. To achieve the organization’s goals, though, the technology would have to meet important criteria. It would need to be visually appealing and interactive. It would need to support massive amounts of data—and potentially large numbers of visitors. It also had to provide an open platform that would spur creativity, including new software development that could help NASA/JPL in its endeavors. And, because of the participation by many school groups, it would also need to ensure a safe environment for younger citizens.Solution
Following extensive research, NASA/JPL launched a new Web site called BeAMartian that is designed to attract “citizen-scientists” to Mars exploration activities. The site was built using a variety of technologies, including the cloud-based Windows Azure platform, Silverlight, a cross-platform Web browser plug-in that delivers rich content and interactivity, and Windows Azure Marketplace DataMarket, a service that lets developers and organizations create and consume applications and content on the Azure platform. The site is can be viewed using the most popular Web browsers, including Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari.
The BeAMartian site gives citizens a chance to view hundreds of thousands of large, high-resolution Mars images. Site visitors can pan, zoom, and explore the planet through images from Mars landers, roving explorers, and orbiters. The images are stored in the Planetary Data System, a huge data repository maintained by NASA/JPL.
Although the tools for retrieving the data from the Planetary Data System are largely geared for scientists and other experts, the BeAMartian site makes it much easier for the general public to work with the Mars data. To do this, Microsoft and NASA—working with Mondo Robot, a Colorado-based design firm, and the Arizona State University Mars Space Flight Facility—developed a way for citizens to participate in science using casual game-like experiences. For example, “Mapping Mars” lets citizen scientists perform “map stitching” activities in which they align images from different orbiters, but with the same geo-coordinates, to build a more accurate global map of the planet than can be achieved by computers alone.
Another experience has visitors count craters to help scientists understand the relative ages of small regions on Mars’ surface. Visitors earn reputation points for their discoveries and can build an online reputation by helping NASA/JPL examine and organize the images. NASA/JPL aims to use the information provided by site visitors to produce a complete, accurate map of Mars, enhanced close-up images, and easier interpretation of Martian surface changes over time.
Using the Datamarket technology, NASA created its experimental “Pathfinder Innovation Contest,” which is designed to harness a global pool of programming and design talent to foster more citizen-science contributions to Mars exploration. For example, developers can create applications that help identify content in images and other tools for improving public access to, and analysis of, Mars data.
The site also showcases the “Two Moons Theater,” which features a high-definition video series called “The Martians.” It follows Mars mission teams and citizen scientists who are engaged in Mars exploration. Every episode in the series is provided with captions, reflecting the NASA/JPL goal of welcoming all citizens through a strong focus on accessibility.
The site was launched in November 2009. Within two weeks of the site’s launch, NASA/JPL recorded an array of statistics that included:
35,000 people who signed up to “be a Martian,” many of whom participated in the site’s “Martian Town Hall Polling Place” social-networking service that provides discussion boards and a system for voting on which questions people most want answered;
2.5 million images that were served up to citizen scientists who wanted to help categorize images, such as counting craters and stitching images;
An average of 169,000 classifications that were submitted each day;
5,000 individuals and teams that signed up for the Pathfinder contest;
500,000 queries from applications requesting information stored on the platform.
At least one “super user” who completed more than 5,000 individual transactions on the site, including crater counting and map stitching. The user earned more than 500,000 reputation points for his/her efforts.
The spikes in traffic and large volumes of data were handled easily by the platform. During one period of activity shortly after the launch, the site—which was running on 10 servers—experienced a large spike in visitor traffic. It took site managers less than 10 minutes to make an additional 20 servers available using the cloud, which was more than enough to handle the sudden increase in activity.Benefits
The BeAMartian site has successfully demonstrated how Web technology can help an organization engage with a large, dispersed group of users to view graphically rich content and participate in activities that involve massive amounts of data. The site has helped NASA/JPL raise awareness of its Mars-related missions and research activities. It has also helped NASA/JPL engage with a large international audience and, in the process, promote its goal of generating excitement around the technical skills needed for future space exploration, particularly the STEM disciplines. Additionally, the site is helping NASA/JPL fulfill its obligations to make its data more accessible to the general public while assisting NASA/JPL scientists in their work.
Builds Broad Awareness
The BeAMartian site has helped NASA/JPL advance its goal of getting more of the public involved in its exploration and research activities. NASA/JPL wanted to engage the community of students, educators, citizens, and scientists more deeply around its Mars program in an open and collaborative fashion.
The new site has been successful in providing a compelling forum for two-way interaction instead of one-sided information sharing. The site helps to generate interest and enthusiasm among future generations of scientists, engineers, and technical staff, as well as educators who will be preparing them for their futures.
Engages with a Global Audience
The visually attractive site interface and the fun, engaging citizen science experiences has all contributed to reaching a global audience. At the same time, the technology behind the site is allowing NASA/JPL to engage easily in two-way communications. Using TownHall, discussion topics raised by visitors to the site are ranked by community members using a voting mechanism. The items ranked as most interesting items are then addressed by a forum leader. The technology solved a problem in managing the volumes of questions that regularly come in to the small education and outreach team, allowing them to answer questions progressively and transparently based on which had the most public demand.
The community is self-policing so that any inappropriate content is flagged. Behind the scenes, content is subjected to a sophisticated filter that eliminates any submissions that include profanity or personally identifiable information. Both were necessary given NASA sites must be “family friendly.”
The community forum allows NASA staff to engage easily with the public on their interests and on ways they can contribute. This provides a higher return on the nation’s investment in space exploration by engaging citizens in science and life-long learning through participatory exploration.
Makes Data More Accessible, Helping Scientists
The BeAMartian site is also helping NASA/JPL follow through on its own internal efforts to make vast quantities of information more available to the public. It also allows the organization to comply with Obama administration’s Open Government Initiative, which directs all public agencies to reduce the barriers to transparency, participation, and collaboration between the federal government and the citizens it serves.
At the same time, NASA/JPL is creating opportunities for a very large group of people with skills that can help NASA/JPL scientists reach broader audiences and receive valuable input in return.
“I build software that controls spacecraft,” says Dr. Norris. “It’s a challenging task, and it is just one of many that we at NASA face every day. This site is helping us build a community that is excited about space—and is excited about applying their skills to help us in our journey of exploring the universe.”³
For More Information
For more information about Microsoft products and services, call the Microsoft Sales Information Center at (800) 426-9400. In Canada, call the Microsoft Canada Information Centre at (877) 568-2495. Customers in the United States and Canada who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can reach Microsoft text telephone (TTY/TDD) services at (800) 892-5234. Outside the 50 United States and Canada, please contact your local Microsoft subsidiary. To access information using the World Wide Web, go to: www.microsoft.com
For more information about Mondo Robot products and services, call (303) 800-2916 or visit the website at: www.mondorobot.com
For more information about the Arizona State University Mars Flight Facility, call (480) 965-5081 or visit the website at: www.mars.asu.edu
For more information about National Aeronautics and Space Administration / Jet Propulsion Laboratory, call (818) 354-4321 or visit the website at: www.jpl.nasa.gov
¹: .NET Rocks audio interview, 2/18/2010: www.dotnetrocks.com/default.aspx?showNum=526
²: Joint NASA/Microsoft press release, 11/17/2009: www.microsoft.com/Presspass/Features/2009/nov09/11-17BeAMartian.mspx
³: .NET Rocks audio interview, 2/18/2010: www.dotnetrocks.com/default.aspx?showNum=526 This case study is for informational purposes only. MICROSOFT MAKES NO WARRANTIES, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, IN THIS SUMMARY.