Delivering content from a world away

Delivering content from a world away

On May 25, NASA's Phoenix Mars lander will enter the Martian atmosphere at nearly 13,000 miles per hour, complete a complex seven-minute series of events, then land on the red planet to begin a three-month mission to explore Martian soil and ice. Some 500,000 people are expected to watch this on the Web: Few of those people will be more interested than Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and one of the IT leaders responsible for making sure all the images and video from this high-profile mission get managed and delivered to NASA staffers and the public without a hitch.

Few IT pros will ever work on a project as high-profile as a Mars landing. For Holm, this is round two: She also managed content for NASA's JPL during the last Mars mission in 2004.

Holm and some of her colleagues gave us a look at the massive amount of data and effort it will take to accomplish their IT mission, as well as the tools and strategies they're using, from content management to hardware hosting.

By the way, unlike many enterprises today, NASA is not afraid to go Web 2.0. This Mars landing will also be broadcast in its own area on Second Life.

Millions of viewers, one big question

This Mars mission seeks answers to some huge questions, the biggest being whether the Martian arctic can support life. To answer that, the mission will ask what the history of water is in the area, and how polar dynamics shape the climate of Mars, for example. The scientists will make use of gadgets far more innovative than Apple could imagine, the coolest of which may be a robotic arm built by JPL that will dig, scoop and grab soil and ice for analysis.

The mission team includes scientists from the University of Arizona, NASA engineers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and flight systems experts from Lockheed Martin Space Systems. Holm works on the content management part of the mission along with colleagues including Carla Bitter, education and public outreach manager for the mission for the University of Arizona, and Charles White, JPL's expert on virtual world technologies, who heads up the Second Life work.

When you see the images coming back from the mission next week, you can thank Bitter and Holm and their teams. From an amazing array of images, Bitter and an editorial board hand-select which ones are most useful for public, museum and scientific audiences. Bitter compares it to picking the world's most exotic flowers from a hothouse each day.

Consider the scope of this content management project. First, video and images must travel from Mars on a unique journey via NASA deep space antennae, before making their way onto NASA computers and the Web. As Holm matter-of-factly puts it, "Our data is millions of miles away."

Yet, beginning with the Mars mission in 2004, images coming from deep space could appear on the Web within about 15 minutes or so of NASA receiving them. "It was a huge mindshift," Holm says. "Before, scientists would analyze the images for hours, days, weeks, before publishing them with the analysis. Now that analysis happens with the worldwide community in real time."

In fact, circa 2002, NASA's content management infrastructure was far from sophisticated, Holm says. A single server in the basement was supporting the NASA website where the public got news of missions, she says. If you visited the site back then, you might see a message like "Tune in at 3 for a press conference", she adds. "That was state of the art for large events at NASA," Holm says. "Delivering information via the Web was a "time-consuming, onerous process."

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