On our insignificant rock in the cosmos, Earth, we have begun developing a global information network. But the Internet can be a magnificent way, not just to examine our own planet, but also to help explore the reaches of space.
With the tiniest of baby steps, we are twittering our way to space knowledge. Mike Massimino, a NASA astronaut on the Space Shuttle Atlantis, recently sent the first tweet from space -- sort of. While the astronauts can't directly access the Internet from the Shuttle, Massimino sent tweets via email from the Shuttle's laptops to a NASA employee on the ground, who then posted them.
Massimino had been sending several tweets a day while still on Earth. But once he was in space, his tweets decreased to about one a day. I guess he got busy taking walks outside to repair some telescope.
But Massimino's tweets might play second fiddle to those of astronaut Mark Polansky, who began twittering on May 7. He plans to continue twittering aboard the International Space Station (ISS) when he arrives next month as commander of the Space Shuttle.
He's not stopping at Twitter: Two weeks ago, Polansky posted a video on YouTube suggesting viewers post video questions about space on YouTube and send a link to the videos to his Twitter account. Polansky says when he's aboard the ISS he'll answer some of the questions, which will be broadcast over NASA TV.
NASA itself has become something of a social networking butterfly. The agency has 36 accounts on Twitter (including its main account), 24 on Facebook, eight on Flickr, five on MySpace, and 13 YouTube channels. NASA's Mars Phoenix Lander gained attention by tweeting its progress on the Red Planet (with a little help from humans on Earth). NASA's Cassini-Huygens Saturn probe also has a Twitter account.
You don't have to be an astronaut or a robot probe to employ the Internet in space exploration. Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope software, apparently so inspirational it made tech blogger Robert Scoble cry when he saw it, incorporates thousands of space images and enables anyone with a Windows computer to pan, zoom, and navigate around the universe from multiple angles. The site has many interesting videos describing the project. But you need to download software to use the "telescope."
"Google Mars" provides a multiplicity of views of the closest planet (depending on the time of year) to Earth. But it's more impressive to view beautiful 3D maps and flyovers of Mars, watch tutorials, and see real-time orbital tracks of Mars spacecraft by downloading Google Earth, which recently was upgraded to incorporate the Mars content.
Then there's the mobility angle: A couple of weeks ago, I got excited reading a Sunday Times article describing a new Google service, "Star Droid," that employs a cellular phone's GPS capabilities to display the names of planets and stars on the phone's screen. Google has just introduced Google Sky Map for Android phones, which appears to be "Star Droid." It's not as visually exciting, information-rich, or fast as I'd like, but it's a start.
On the downside, a few space-oriented phones have been introduced; but they are, frankly, pathetic. Verizon Wireless offers Nokia's 7205 Intrigue, a mediocre two-megapixel camera phone that ties into the new Star Trek movie. In the U.K., Nokia has introduced a somewhat more advanced Star Trek-themed phone, the 5800, but it's still lame for what should be a future-oriented handset.
A "space" phone should combine the best of technology, including a high-resolution camera, HD video recording, a microprojector, and astronomy-oriented software (such as Google Sky Map or picoSky) that ties into space sites via wireless Internet connectivity.
After all, we'll need superior cellphones for NASA's "interplanetary Internet."
Humans are just a speck in the universe. But we are imbued with the desire to explore, and as we slowly inch our way into the cosmos, we'll be taking the Internet with us.
— Alan Reiter, President, Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing