Google and NASA have signed a formal collaboration agreement that calls for Google to help make NASA information readily accessible on the web.

The partners announced yesterday they’ve signed a Space Act Agreement, which calls for them to collaborate on making it easy for people to find weather visualisation and forecasting data, see high-resolution 3D maps of the moon and Mars and track, in real time, the International Space Station and the space shuttle.

In short, the partnership seeks to make NASA's work "accessible to everyone", Google and NASA said in a statement. Although NASA has collected massive amounts of information about Earth and the universe, this information is scattered and hard to find and is difficult for the average person to understand, they said.

Early fruits of joint Google-NASA work are already evident in the Google Earth mapping application, which now can tap into images and data from NASA.

Those images and data in Google Earth come from the Global Connection Project, a joint effort from Carnegie Mellon University, NASA, Google and National Geographic. This project has contributed material for Google Earth that includes disaster relief information and National Geographic content.

The Global Connection Project is a good example of the type of material Google and NASA will try to make easily available on the web, said Pete Worden, director of the Ames Research Center, the NASA group in charge of coordinating the joint work with Google. "This is going to bring the excitement of space travel to everyone in a way that we haven't been able to do in the past," Worden said.

The public will see a steady stream of results from the Google and NASA partnership starting next year. "We're quite excited about this moving along very rapidly," Worden said. The images and information will surface throughout NASA and Google websites and other products.

"This is a very flexible agreement that allows NASA to work with the private sector and ... make the data that NASA has collected and will collect in the future much more accessible to the public, not only in the US but around the world as well," he said.

Unlocking the access to NASA images and information and making them broadly available is consistent with its mission as a public entity, he said. Currently, many images and information remain stored in NASA databases.

Chris Kemp, Ames' director of business development, said NASA's intention is not to hand over data to Google, but rather put in place the technology mechanisms that will make that data accessible to Google and others. "We're going to be publishing this data where we can, using open XML standards. This is a new way of doing business for NASA," Kemp said.