Meanwhile, back on Earth ... As the astronauts of the Space Shuttle Discovery wrestle weightlessly with a jammed solar array on the International Space Station today, NASA has formalized a new partnership with Google Inc. to provide services for scientists and enthusiasts of the space program.

The initiative, announced earlier today, called a Space Act Agreement, formalizes a partnership begun last year to bring new, advanced online services to those interested in learning more about the work being done by the U.S. space agency—on Earth and in outer space. It follows preliminary discussions that began in 2005 when Google acquired a tract of land near the NASA Ames Research Center, in Silicon Valley, to build a million-square-foot R&D compound.

The long-planned agreement, having cleared technical hurdles, will set the stage for the Internet giant to cooperate with the space agency in a variety of areas in the long term, including large-scale data management, massively distributed computing, bio-info-nano convergence, and encouragement of the entrepreneurial space industry. To start, NASA said, they will focus on making its most useful information available online. 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 fleet will be explored in the future.

"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 Washington, D.C. "This innovative combination of information technology and space science will make NASA's space exploration work accessible to everyone."

NASA and Google also are finalizing details for additional projects that include joint research, products, facilities, education, and missions, they announced.

"We've worked hard over the past year to implement an agreement that enables NASA and Google to work closely together on a wide range of innovative collaborations," said Chris C. Kemp, director of strategic business development at Ames. "We are bringing together some of the best research scientists and engineers to form teams to make more of NASA's vast information accessible."

For its part, the Mountain View, Calif., search firm was clearly enthusiastic about the prospect of collaborating with the U.S. space program. "Partnering with NASA made perfect sense for Google, as it has a wealth of technical expertise and data that will be of great use to Google as we look to tackle many computing issues on behalf of our users," said CEO Eric Schmidt. "We're pleased to move forward to collaborate on a variety of technical challenges through the signing of the Space Act Agreement."

Now, if they could only come up with a way to use the Internet to fold a balky solar-array panel in orbit ...


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