Many of us have dreamt of traveling to other planets. Whether it was as far away as Alpha Centauri or as close as Mars, we want to "Boldly Go" there. Now we can (and, no, I'm not referring to Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo).NASA has created the Be A Martian site, where anyone can explore the red planet through images gathered from all the Mars landers, rovers, and satellites. Figure A shows Citizenship Hall, which is the site's home page. Figure A
The new site from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Microsoft, with contributions from Oxford University and Arizona State University, is a game that the groups hope will spark an interest in science and technology. To "play" the game, you browse and explore the images, finding craters, aligning the map pieces to the globe of Mars, and determining the relative age of rocks. Also, this site will help NASA sort through the massive amounts of images it has of Mars by making explorers out of every site visitor.Figure B is a screenshot from the site's Visitors Center, which features a large map of Mars. Figure B
Citizen science, crowdsourcing, and the cloud
This initiative - having site visitors catalog the images - is part of a greater idea called citizen science. Oxford University's Galaxy Zoo is another example of citizen science at work, and Oxford consulted with Microsoft Research about the Be A Martian project.
Be A Martian is also considered a crowdsourcing tool. Microsoft's Developer Platform Evangelism (DPE) group has identified several problems with the approach of crowdsourcing. The first, and largest, problem is that the subject matter must be entertaining enough to attract the masses; without this, a project such as Be A Martian would never happen. Hardware is another issue. Usually, a service experiences large loads at the launch and then tapers off over time, reducing the amount of hardware needed. Determining what to do with this hardware is a big issue. Because of this problem, Be A Martian and other services like it outsource their hardware to cloud computer platforms such as Windows Azure, Silverlight, and the new "Dallas" (codename) product from Microsoft.
Two contests are based around the Be A Martian project. The first is a development contest that tasks contestants with using the NASA data and the available API to create an application to solve certain problems defined by NASA scientists and engineers. The second is the Martian Film Fest. Contestants are asked to create movies using NASA imagery. Visit the Pathfinder Innovation Challenge page, which will lead you to more information about both contests.