NASA sets Web mark

Space agency officials say the recent landings on Mars are the most popular federal event ever in terms of Web traffic.

National Aeronautic and Space Agency

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Due to extremely high public interest in NASA's Mars exploration program, the space agency's Web portal has received more than 6.5 billion hits since early January.

According to NASA officials, this makes the Mars program the most popular federal event in Internet history.

"To the best of our knowledge, this is the biggest government event in the history of the Internet," said Glenn Mahone, NASA assistant administrator for the Office of Public Affairs. "We've passed the peak traffic for the [Internal Revenue Service's] Web site during tax season and for [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's] site during Hurricane Isabel last fall."

Spurred by images transmitted from two robotic explorers, the number of Internet hits to NASA's portal has now surpassed the worldwide population. Also, 914 million Web pages have been downloaded.

The first exploration rover, Spirit, made its Mars landing Jan. 4, and the second rover, Opportunity, touched down Jan. 24. In the first 24 hours after Spirit's landing, NASA's Web portal received more than 225 million hits. More than 48,000 viewers watched NASA's Webcast of the mission coverage that night.

"We're thrilled at the interest people are taking in Spirit and Opportunity," said Jim Garvin, chief scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program. "One of the mission's goals was to use the Internet to bring the public inside the mission, whether they come on their own or through a school or museum."

Although the current Mars mission has become the most popular event in the agency's Web history -- surpassing the traffic following the space shuttle Columbia tragedy last February -- NASA officials feel there is much more yet to come.

"Since the rovers' missions will last 90 days each, it's possible this will wind up being the biggest single event in Internet history," Mahone said.