Apr 02 2024

There Goes the Sun: NASA Upgrades Technology to Prepare for a Total Solar Eclipse

The agency will livestream the April 8 event via a modernized website and streaming solution.

To prepare for the total solar eclipse in 2017, NASA focused on technology that would keep its livestreams running for those who couldn’t see it in person. This time, the agency has looked at how to spend less money for even better service.

About 12 million people watched the eclipse on NASA sites on Aug. 21, 2017, the first to cover much of the U.S. in more than a century.  

The April 8 total solar eclipse — the last one over the continental U.S. until 2044 — will cover an area home to nearly three times the population covered by the 2017 eclipse and will last twice as long — in some areas, nearly five minutes. Most of the United States will see at least a partial eclipse.

Excitement is high, and NASA expects an even bigger audience, and it is ready this time for the financial impact as well as the increased viewership.

“During the 2017 eclipse, we paid a bill based on usage. During the eclipse, we had seven times our normal traffic, and that was a pretty hefty bill,” says Abby Bowman, NASA web modernization lead.

“When we were looking at new hosting providers for our new website about two years ago, we really prioritized pricing structures that were more stable and that could scale with us, so we wouldn’t see a surprise bill for traffic spikes.”

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NASA’s User-Friendly Website Is Built to Carry Huge Traffic Loads

The NASA website was last updated about 10 years ago and was due for modernization for a variety of reasons; pure age was not the only one. The old site was “a kind of traditional homepage that’s heavy on news releases and top-level agency news coverage,” Bowman says.

In addition, NASA subagencies were creating their own sites outside the flagship, complicating the user experience.

The new website puts more emphasis on accessibility and mobile readability, as well as faster page load time and search engine optimization. Topics have been organized in a user-friendly way so that searches such as “What time is the eclipse?” get people where they need to be, says Jason Townsend, NASA’s communications manager.

“We’ve really tried to redo this from the top down, bottom up, front end, back end, the whole nine yards,” he says.

To support the traffic load to the website, which sees about 1 million views a day on average, the NASA team worked with Amazon Web Services to fine-tune services to work efficiently with its new content management system and its existing livestreaming solution provider — the same one it used in 2017.

“When we were on the IT acquisition side, we were pricing out at about four times the 2017 eclipse traffic in order to give us padding, so that we have guaranteed uptime up to that amount,” Bowman says. “We expect the traffic to be bigger, but we’re confident we can hold up to it.”



Performance Test New Technology Before a Major Event

To make sure that the updated technology could handle the pressure, NASA ran tests based on its experience with the 2017 eclipse (when streaming went off without a hitch) and reviewed knowledge gained over years from other high-traffic events such as launches, major press conferences and shuttle tragedies.

Townsend says that the team even compared numbers to this year’s Super Bowl, the most watched telecast of all time, with numbers boosted by streaming.

Website beta began in late July 2023, about two months before the October 14 annular solar eclipse, in which the moon crosses the sun at its furthest point from Earth, meaning that viewers see a “ring of fire” effect because the moon does not cover the entire sun.

“We had this period in which we were really putting the site through a lot of performance stress to simulate peak traffic during that October eclipse,” Bowman says. “By the time we were ready to publicly launch in late September, we knew that every module had been fine-tuned. We knew which were slower, and which were faster.

“And after all that performance testing, the answer we came to is that our new site, while it’s still fresh and new, is more equipped, more stable and more ready to accept that traffic than the legacy site.”

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NASA Took Technology Lessons from an Earlier Eclipse

The October eclipse, which attracted 11 million views to NASA sites, also gave the agency a chance to see how the site would work during a live event, and the eclipse team has adapted the web infrastructure so that it can handle updates and caching without interrupting the stream.

“NASA is geared up to have live coverage from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time, and bring it to everybody everywhere,” says Townsend, who may be among those relying on streaming (he’ll be out of the country on the day of the eclipse).

The stream will provide coverage from telescopes, NASA sites and other live cams across the path of the eclipse, which extends from the western coast of Mexico to Newfoundland in Canada, cutting a diagonal swath across the U.S.

Viewers can watch on nasa.gov, NASA’s mobile app and social media, NASA TV, and a new service called NASA+.

Bowman will be working on eclipse day, but in a location where she’ll experience the full eclipse. “This will be my first eclipse to see in person,” she says. “I’ve heard it’s a life-changing event.”

Pitris/Getty Images

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