WASHINGTON – If you’ve ever wondered what the surface of Mercury looks like, or a neutron star, you can find out on NASA’s World Wide Web site.
The site offers a vast array of still photos and video footage of space shuttle missions, exploration probes such as Voyager and Mariner, the Hubble telescope and more.
In addition, the site links to National Aeronautic and Space Administration centers in cities such as Houston, Pasadena, Calif., and Greenbelt, Md. Each has its own unique features.
The Goddard Space Flight Center link, for example, has a virtual observatory. In the observatory, you enter coordinates for a section of the sky and indicate whether you wish to view it using visible light, radio waves, X-rays, gamma rays or ultraviolet light. A telescopic picture of that section of sky is then displayed on your computer.
In addition to the most recent Hubble pictures and satellite images of earth, the site also houses a collection of still photographs and video and audio clips of the 1969 lunar landing.
The NASA site has undergone several changes since its original creation, said site administrator Brian Dunbar.
The idea of an overarching NASA site was developed in 1994, the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, he said.
The site initially consisted of little more than a list of links to sites at NASA facilities. It cost a mere $8,000 to set up, Dunbar said.
Originally, the site was geared toward scientists and researchers who wished to make use of NASA data and findings, Dunbar said.
But as more and more non-scientists came on-line, Dunbar and others recognized the need for a more universally appealing design for NASA’s presence on the Internet.
“It was obvious that the Internet was for more than just exchanging data,” he said.
Now, he says, “the whole point of the site is to be as obvious as possible” to the average Internet user.
The current site design has been in place since October 1995 and gives information on a spectrum of NASA activities.
“I couldn’t tell you the number of people involved in this across the agency,” Dunbar said.
One of the user-friendly features is an area called “Today@NASA.” It is constantly updated and houses the latest information and graphics, on topics ranging from shuttle missions to NASA space camps.
The site also features a live video feed from the current space shuttle mission. As astronauts work on the Hubble telescope and walk in space, video cameras and CU-See Me software allow earthbound types to “experience the mission themselves.”
Those features have paid off in attracting Web surfers at the rate of hundreds of thousands a day – and as many as 10 million during a week-long shuttle mission, Dunbar said.
Dunbar, 37, of Arlington, Va., has worked at NASA for seven years and was a public affairs officer promoting NASA’s environmental achievements before the Internet became his life.
His new vocation “is a challenge, because I don’t have a computer background,” he said. To reach the site, type http://www.nasa.gov. -30-