Millions See NASA Hit A Comet In Space - InformationWeek

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Millions See NASA Hit A Comet In Space

NASA is bargaining for extra bandwidth for upcoming shuttle launch.

NASA's Deep Impact mission last week wasn't just a leap forward for space science, it was also a huge success for the use of the Web as a channel for delivering dynamic content. The space agency's Deep Impact Web sites attracted about three times more traffic than sites for last year's Mars Spirit Rover landing. Now NASA is bracing for its biggest Web event yet: the launch of its first space shuttle since losing Columbia.

From 8 p.m. on July 3 until 8 p.m. the next day, the and Deep Impact sites were hammered with around 80 million page-view requests and about 8 million user sessions from people curious to read about and see images of the spacecraft colliding with the Tempel 1 comet. The Spirit's Jan. 5, 2004, landing attracted 30 million page views and 2.8 million user sessions during its first 24 hours on the red planet.

"We rarely see numbers that large within a 24-hour period," says Gray Hall, president and CEO of VeriCenter Inc., the company that hosts NASA's Web sites. VeriCenter manages 50 NASA servers and 2 million NASA Web pages in its seven U.S. data centers.

There's more to come. On July 13, if all goes well, Web users will be able to log on to NASA's site to watch the space shuttle Discovery lift off from Kennedy Space Center en route to the international space station. This marks the first shuttle launch since the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in February 2003.

To prepare for the event, which NASA calls "Return to Flight," the agency is working with private industry to augment its bandwidth, says Brian Dunbar, NASA's Internet services manager. "We're partnering with companies that can provide bandwidth possibly in exchange for co-branding with NASA or sponsorship on the Web site," he says. Dunbar declined to provide details about which companies will participate and how they will provide the additional bandwidth.

The comet Tempel 1 as it looked 67 seconds after Deep Impact's collision.

The comet Tempel 1 as it looked 67 seconds after Deep Impact's collision.

Photo courtesy of NASA
For the Deep Impact mission, NASA procured additional bandwidth from its caching services provider, Speedera Networks Inc., which is being acquired by Akamai Technologies Inc.

It's just the latest example of NASA's push to stay in the public's consciousness, even as press coverage of the space agency's activities has dwindled. For NASA, the Web has become the only way for the public to witness firsthand all of the space agency's successes and failures. Although early shuttle missions were broadcast live on major television networks, by the late 1990s people caught only glimpses of launches and landings during evening news roundups.

In response, NASA also has launched it own television network of sorts, broadcast through the agency's Web site. During the Deep Impact mission, NASA TV's coverage of the impact peaked at 118,000 concurrent streams just as the space craft met Tempel 1 head on. By comparison, the Mars Rover mission reached a peak of 49,672 concurrent streams the day the Spirit landed.

Although Return to Flight is sure to garner mainstream media coverage, NASA wants its Web sites to be the preeminent destination for real-time video, images, and other mission-related information. "It's essential to letting people know what we do," Dunbar says. "There's still an audience for the information we have and a great interest in NASA answering fundamental questions such as what a comet is made out of."

This story was modified on July 12 to correct the spelling of Tempel 1.

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