Google and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have signed a formal collaboration agreement that calls for Google to help make NASA information readily accessible on the web.

Google and NASA have agreed the 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 the International Space Station and the space shuttle in real time.

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 can now tap into images and data from NASA, officials from the two organisations said on Monday during a press conference.

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 co-ordinating 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 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.

The two organisations will also tackle what they consider to be challenging technical problems in areas like large-scale data management, massively distributed computing, and user interfaces.

In September of last year, Google and NASA signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to collaborate on solving technical problems. That MOU also called for Google to develop up to 1 million square feet within the NASA Research Park at Moffett Field.

The building of that Google campus is still "in very preliminary planning stages" and there is no specific date for beginning construction, Google officials said during Monday's press conference.

NASA and Google also are finalising details for additional collaborations in areas like research, products, facilities and education.