Google Reaches Far Out For Users

Google is taking more than one small step in formalizing its relationship with a NASA research facility. This week, the search giant announced it signed a Space Act agreement with NASA Ames Research Center.

The two groups said they plan to work jointly on a range of technical problems from large-scale data management and massively distributed computing to human-computer interface. The collaboration will focus on helping NASA put more of its vast store of information on the Internet.

“NASA has collected and processed more information about our planet and universe than any other entity in the history of humanity,” said Chris C. Kemp, director of strategic business development at Ames.

“Even though this information was collected for the benefit of everyone, and much is in the public domain, the vast majority of this information is scattered and difficult for non-experts to access and to understand.”

The joint areas of research that could become accessible to the public in the next several years include real-time weather visualization and forecasting, high-resolution 3-D maps of the moon and Mars, and real-time tracking of the International Space Station and the space shuttle.

In an optimistic, if not tongue-in-cheek, statement at the Google Moon site, the company states that by July 20th, 2069, it plans to fully integrate Google Local search capabilities into Google Moon, in honor of the 100th anniversary of mankind’s first manned lunar landing. Google predicts the new service will let users quickly find lunar business addresses, numbers and hours of operation.

“This agreement between NASA and Google will soon allow every American to experience a virtual flight over the surface of the moon or through the canyons of Mars,” said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin in a statement. “This innovative combination of information technology and space science will make NASA’s space exploration work accessible to everyone.”

The alliance is not a surprise to Forrester analyst Charlene Li. “Google is always looking for the best brains and the best data, and what NASA has is unique. Google doesn’t own any satellites,” said Li.

She notes Google often does things that don’t have obvious or immediate revenue potential. “What they do is win users, and that’s what the battle is all about.”

One example is the Google Moon site, which features maps of the moon’s surface. “There’s not so much a need but it’s cool from an educational point of view and just to explore,” said Li.

In the broader area of mapping where Google Maps competes with Mapquest, and Microsoft Virtual Earth, among others, Li said there is significant revenue potential. “If you’re looking for directions to your cousin’s house, an ad may not be effective, but if you’re looking for directions to a furniture store, that’s where a competitor might well want to place an ad, with, for example, a discount coupon to check them out.”

Illuminata analyst Wayne Kernochan said the prevalence of online maps represents a huge market opportunity similar to cell phones. “Once cell phones started to have hundreds of millions of users, software companies realized that was a great new market for them to attack,” Kernochan told “Now maps have reached that point.”

Google and NASA Ames Research first announced their intent to collaborate in September 2005. Company officials said at the time they planned to develop up to a million square feet of office and lab space within NASA’s facility.

Now NASA and Google said they are finalizing details for additional collaborations that include joint research, products, facilities, education and missions.

A year ago, the company hired one of the founding fathers of the Internet, Vint Cerf, to be its chief Internet evangelist. One of Cerf’s pet projects is the NASA-supported Interplanetary Network, which aims to create an Internet that reaches into space.

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