NASA's Mars images generate billions and billions of hits

NASA's twin Mars Rover missions have proved to be crowd pleasers, generating more than 4.5 billion hits on the space agency's Web site.

'What we're seeing is hands-down the biggest event we've ever seen at NASA,' both in terms of single-day traffic and sustained interest, said Internet Services Manager Brian R. Dunbar.

It took less than two weeks this month to exceed traffic for all of last year on NASA's Web portal.

'Comparisons are hard, because there is no central repository for statistics, but as near as we can tell this is bigger than anything else the government has ever handled,' Dunbar said. That includes the annual tax-season rush to the IRS Web site and last year's coverage of Hurricane Isabel by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NASA has been able to handle the volume because content management and delivery has been outsourced to companies to provision the capacity for massive spikes in demand. ETouch Systems Corp. of Freemont, Calif., provides content management that lets NASA publish the graphics that have drawn so much attention. Speedera Networks Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., hosts the Web portal and delivers content through a distributed network of servers.

According to Speedera, peak traffic reached almost 50,000 simultaneous online viewers of streaming video of the Mars Rover Opportunity landing on Jan. 24. The company registered more than 33 million unique visitors, each viewing an average of 17 pages and spending eight minutes on the site.

Speedera was chosen to host NASA Web content when the agency redesigned its decentralized Web pages under a central portal in 2002. At that time, the main Web page was hosted on a server in the basement of NASA headquarters in Washington.

'We wanted to get the public sites as much as possible off our network,' because of the demand created by spikes in traffic, Dunbar said.

NASA set the baseline for traffic based on demand generated by space shuttle missions, and planned to accommodate spikes beyond that. 'It has worked very well,' Dunbar said.

'We figured from the start it was going to be big,' Dunbar said of the Mars missions. But the scope of the demand came as a bit of a surprise. 'We thought there might be some fall-off between the first and second landing,' but online viewership of video from mission headquarters and photos from the rovers proved to be just as great the second time around.

Dunbar said he expected interest to remain high.

'We're still in the early part of the mission,' he said. 'There are some great outcroppings that the scientists are just champing at the bit to get a closer look at,' which are generating public interest.

The troubled Spirit, which landed Jan. 3, is expected to come back online in two or three weeks, creating more traffic.

'They feel like they have a handle on what the problem is,' and NASA scientists are working to bring Spirit back up, he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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