Google + NASA: What’s in store?

It’s announcement day today in the Google Earth ecosphere. Announcement number one we were expecting, though the precise nature of its content we were not: A formal relationship between NASA and Google “to work together on a variety of challenging technical problems ranging from large-scale data management and massively distributed computing, to human-computer interfaces.” You can read the rest of the press release here. (Here’s another, on

No mention of iEarth, though it is very much part of what is envisaged — it’s just that the agreement encompasses so much more, including “Real-time weather visualization and forecasting, high-resolution 3- D maps of the moon and Mars, real-time tracking of the International Space Station and the space shuttle”. (Excellent news about Mars and the Moon — I was certainly hoping for that.)

The challenge:

“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.

And since Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information”, this is exactly the kind of challenge it excels at; namely “technical problems ranging from large-scale data management and massively distributed computing, to human-computer interfaces.”

A NASA World Wind developer’s blog, The Earth is Square, broke the news, though its take is that NASA World Wind already does most of what the agreement sets out to do. Indeed, current Mars and Moon imagery is available in NASA World wind, and some other features, like live positions of spacecraft, are available now as a plugin in both Google Earth and World Wind. But that leaves out terrabytes upon terrabytes of data that is just waiting to be processed and made usable. And that’s not something an open-source 3D viewer project is going to crack anytime soon.

Ultimately, this announcement is not about the client, but about the content, and I for one am very excited about the prospects. The Earth is Square is right, albeit graceless, when it writes, “But let Google spend its millions.. they do the hard work and because the data has to be in the public domain.. it will be in World Wind in no time.” Indeed, and users will then get to decide if they want to view the data on a souped-up atlas with social software skills and high resolution imagery as context, or in a realistic-looking, open-source virtual globe. There’s room for both.

3 thoughts on “Google + NASA: What’s in store?”

  1. There’s another interesting tie between NASA and Google that’s not touched upon in this post. Peter Norvig (, Google’s Director of Research, used to be Director of Computational Sciences at NASA Ames.

  2. Stephan,

    I agree that Chad at The Earth is Square is correct in saying there is nothing new here other than Google servers may start hosting the data. If Google can index and make all of this data available that’s great. He does have one very good point though…

    So.. does that mean that since Google will be displaying public domain imagery that I can create an add-on for World Wind to show all that imagery also in World Wind and not have Google send the lawyers at me? Just how open to use will this data be if Google is hosting it.

    I’ll add that Google may very well not only host images, but data as well from NASA. Everyone, using any client, should have access to this data. There are some very real concerns in regards to data access. For example how can I view all of the US National Park data that’s in Google Earth without using GE? Maybe there is a way to do it, but I’m not aware if it. Is the NASA / Google partnership simply going to result in more ‘special data’ layers in GE? I think Google will do the right thing and make the data easily available, but no one spoke up about the universal accessibility of the data in the press releases and that is concerning.

  3. As a tax payer I heartily approve of making the vast troves of spatial data–that I already paid for, thank you very much–more accessible to a broader public.

    The US Government creates and makes available a tremendous quantity of spatial data. But, as even the casual user will tell you, “available” and “easily accessible” are two very different matters. That various agencies have their own thickets of barely navigable web offerings (e.g. NASA, EROS, BLM, USGS, etc., etc.) we now take as a given. That Google is looking to do good by doing well in helping out with indexing and standardization of formats bothers me not in the least.

    And I’d be very surprised if the content Google was hosting didn’t include download links from the NASA site where folks who really need GeoTIFFs, MrSID images, shapefiles etc., can wrestle with bulky data to their heart’s content.


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