From the Cloud to the Crowd: NASA and Microsoft Ask Citizen Scientists to “Be a Martian”

LOS ANGELES — Nov. 17, 2009 — For centuries, humans have been fascinated by Mars. Its reddish hue, relative proximity to Earth, and a mistaken notion that its surface was laced with “canals” have made it fodder for dramatists and science-fiction writers from Orson Welles (“The War of the Worlds”) to Ray Bradbury (“The Martian Chronicles”)

Now anyone with a Web browser can become a Martian explorer. That’s because NASA is launching a new citizen-science Web site, called “Be a Martian,” that gives people a chance to view hundreds of thousands of images gathered over decades of exploration on the Red Planet.



Built on the Windows Azure platform, NASA’s new “Be a Martian” site is an educational game that invites visitors help the space agency review thousands of images of Mars.

Site visitors can pan, zoom and explore the planet through images from Mars landers, roving explorers and orbiting satellites dating from the 1960s to the present. Many of the images have never before been seen.

The site is also designed as a game with a twofold purpose: NASA and Microsoft hope it will spur interest in science and technology among students in the U.S. and around the world. It also is a “crowdsourcing” tool designed to tap visitors’ brains and help the space agency process volumes of Mars images.

“We really need the next generation of explorers,” says Michelle Viotti, director of Mars Public Outreach at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “And we’re also accomplishing something important for NASA. There’s so much data coming back from Mars. Having a wider crowd look at the data, classify it and help understand its meaning is very important.”

The project was created through an agreement between NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Microsoft, with contributions from Arizona State University and — through a grant by Microsoft Research — Oxford University. It was built on the Microsoft Windows Azure platform, using a Silverlight application, and a new service code-named “Dallas,” which houses all the information.

The Power of Citizen Science

Tim Harris, product manager for Microsoft’s Developer Platform Evangelism (DPE) group, says such “citizen science” initiatives are a great way to both engage the public and create useful metadata that helps scientists organize and prioritize their research.

An example of this is Oxford University’s Galaxy Zoo. Oxford consulted with Microsoft on the NASA project via a grant from Microsoft Research. “They’ve got graduate students doing the work today, but the amount of time it takes is extraordinary,” says Harris. “With Galaxy Zoo, in a matter of months they were able to do more work than the graduate students were able to do in two years. With ‘Be a Martian,’ we’re hoping the public can knock out Mars-related challenges pretty quickly.”

Harris says the success of Galaxy Zoo is a great example of how citizen science can work to support researchers: “The power of citizen science is that critical mass of people — hundreds of thousands on the Internet doing millions of classifications compared to a dozen grad students in a basement doing a few dozen classifications a day.”

Users of Galaxy Zoo even discovered a new type of celestial body. Harris says the “Be a Martian” project has similar potential.

“We know there were photographs snapped of a landslide in progress on Mars that scientists discovered serendipitously,” he says. “We hope many more people can be involved in that kind of exciting discovery.”

NASA’s Wow Factor a Challenge

As director of business innovation for DPE, it’s Marc Mercuri’s job to design technology solutions that tackle unique challenges. He echoes the effectiveness of the so-called



By counting craters, site visitors can help NASA scientists understand the surface of Mars.

crowdsourcing approach — using entertainment to attract the brainpower of a multitude of human beings — when it comes to processing large volumes of science information.

Pulling it off can be a challenge, though. The tactical problems of crowdsourcing are twofold. On the one hand, the experience must be interesting and engaging enough that people will want to participate. On the other hand, you need to have enough servers to keep the site alive during peak traffic.

“The hardware question represents a problem for a lot of organizations,” Mercuri says. “If you invest in the servers to handle your launch traffic, what do you do with them when it cools off? A lot of organizations don’t want to make that huge up-front investment.”

The challenge of matching hardware to demand is prompting many organizations to outsource their processing power for Web services. Microsoft’s solution in this space is the Windows Azure platform.

With NASA’s “Be a Martian site,” Mercuri says, NASA and Microsoft were able to employ the crowdsourcing concept for educational purposes while providing a social benefit. The Windows Azure platform, using Silverlight and “Dallas,” has succeeded in making large mission datasets available and easy to access, opening up a world of exploration for visitors to the site — literally.

“When it comes to the wow factor, it’s tough to compete with the images NASA has collected over several decades of space exploration,” he says. “With Silverlight’s support for high-definition video, it was a natural choice for building a Web application that could showcase the space agency’s fantastic imagery.”

Microsoft and NASA used Silverlight to build an interactive application that can run on any major browser. The images number in the hundreds of thousands — decades of research represented by terabytes of information, all free for the public to peruse and comment on.

“It’s a fun, casual game with beautiful images that also has a real purpose,” says Mercuri. “You don’t need a degree in science, but you can contribute back to the space program right away. And for those who are inspired, particularly the next generation, it opens up a path for continued learning that we hope may actually lead to advanced degrees later on.”

Visitors earn points and can build an online reputation by helping NASA examine and organize the images. A game called Mapping Mars lets users align images with the same geo-coordinates to build a global map of the planet. Another game has visitors count craters to help scientists understand the relative age of rocks on Mars’ surface.

Housing all those images is “Dallas,” an information service that sews up neatly with the front-end Silverlight application. Mercuri says “Dallas” was designed to make it easy for Web developers to access and serve information.

“‘Dallas’ has a nice Web interface for accessing it,” he says. “You can click a link to generate a class that makes it easy to consume this data inside of .NET applications. Even if you’re not a Web-savvy kid, you’re going to be able to take this library and plug it into your application, and it just works.”

Powering it all is Microsoft’s Web services platform, Windows Azure. Just as Windows 7 connects a computer’s processor with its applications and user input, Windows Azure provides the Web-based operating system that links information residing in an information service like “Dallas” with the Silverlight application users are working with.

Computer processing power through the Windows Azure platform is provided from Microsoft datacenters located around the world. This proverbial “cloud” computing system solves the problem of making a huge up-front investment in servers.

“Running applications based on the Windows Azure platform through cloud services provides the ability to scale to any level,” says Mercuri. “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.”

Mercuri says that ability to scale for any situation is one of the most compelling reasons that more and more companies are moving their IT infrastructures to the cloud.

And according to DPE’s Harris, the same ability to scale and serve any number of users in the business world also enables the educational power of crowdsourcing and citizen science to be realized.

“The real power of this approach is the same as it always is with technology — putting information into people’s hands and seeing what they do with it.”