Thanks to a grant from Microsoft Research, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab has launched a new website called Be a Martian. On the site, visitors can virtually “explore” Mars, zooming around the planet, looking at images from various Mars landers, explorers, and satellites from the 1960’s to present-day. But Be a Martian isn’t just an educational experience – it’s a crowd-sourced experiment that may end up helping NASA accomplish something important: process the massive volumes of image data they have collected about the red planet.
To encourage visitors to pitch in with data analysis, Be a Martian makes work a game. Multiple games, in fact. In one game, players line up images from the 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter with a larger image from the Mars Global Surveyor, a process which could help NASA create more accurate 3D models of the planet. Another game has users counting craters. And everyone participating earns points and badges for playing, making the process even more fun.
The site uses Silverlight so it works in any major browser while still offering a visually impressive experience. On the backend, the NASA data is stored in “Dallas,” Microsoft’s newly launched project for serving up massive data stores which web developers can use to create information-rich sites. The Be a Martian website runs on Windows Azure, allowing the site to scale as needed. “The system dedicates an appropriate amount of processors to the application, whether it’s being used by 250, 250,000 or 2,500,000 people at the same time,” says Marc Mercuri, Microsoft’s director of business innovation for Developer Platform Evangelism (DPE).
Coinciding with the site’s launch are two Martian-themed contests, one for developers and one for non-programmers. Developers can enter the Pathfinder Innovation Challenge which asks them to use the NASA data, its media API and other components to build new applications for solving a set of problems defined by NASA scientists and engineers. Non-programmers have the Martian Film Fest which lets them build on their digital movie-making skills. More details about both contests is available on NASA’s website here.