Mars Rover landing increases traffic to NASA site

FRAMINGHAM (01/05/2004) - The Saturday landing of NASA's six-wheeled Mars Exploration Rover Spirit on the surface of Mars has become the most widely-watched Internet event ever sponsored by the space agency.

By 11 a.m. EST Monday, the home page of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had received some 513 million hits during the previous 48 hours, as millions of people around the world watched the interplanetary mission's progress via the Internet. The actual landing took place just before midnight EST Saturday night.

By comparison, the breakup and loss of the space shuttle Challenger Feb. 1 as it attempted re-entry into Earth's atmosphere attracted far fewer home page hits, said Brian Dunbar, NASA's Washington-based Internet services manager. The space agency recorded 75 million hits during a 24-hour period as that tragedy unfolded, setting the previous record for Web traffic to the site.

For NASA, space missions generally create huge amounts of interest from people around the world, Dunbar said, and the Mars mission is capturing more attention than any recent mission.

"Mars has been a part of our culture with The War of the Worlds and other popular science fiction," Dunbar said.

Last year, NASA stopped hosting its own Internet infrastructure and hired network hosting company Speedera Networks Inc., which can add capacity on demand as loads increase, Dunbar said. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based vendor has been able to keep up with the peak demands and loads without a hitch, he said.

The Spirit is the first of two rovers slated to land on Mars by the end of the month. On Jan. 24, the second Mars rover, which is named Opportunity, is expected to land and begin its own set of experiments and exploration of the planet.

Both rovers rely on an embedded operating system from Wind River Systems Inc. in Alameda, Calif., that manages the trajectory, descent, operations control, data collection and communications for their missions. That VxWorks operating system was embedded in a specially prepared, radiation-hardened 20-MHz PowerPC CPU installed on each of the rovers, along with 128MB of RAM.

The two Mars missions are seeking answers to the age-old questions of whether there are verifiable signs of water on the planet and whether life has ever existed there.

"It would help answer one of the basic questions," Dunbar said. "Are we alone in the universe?"

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