NASA and Microsoft today said they have built a Web site that lets would be Martians virtually explore the red planet.

The official goal of the Be A Martian site is to inspire digital age workforce development and life long learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Unofficially the site promotes human space travel, something NASA would like to see in a positive light and of course software development for Microsoft.

The site, unveiled at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference, also wants software developers to compete for and win prizes for creating tools that provide access to and analysis of hundreds of thousands of Mars images for online, classroom and Mars mission team use, NASA stated.

Visitors to the site will be able to set up a Martian user name, and account to virtually explore the planet, call up images of Valles Marineris and potentially collaborate with thousands of other users to assist scientists in exploring Martian surface changes. There are “tourist regions” of the planet not to be missed on the virtual map of the red planet.

The site will also feature a virtual town hall forum where users can expand their knowledge by proposing Mars questions and voting on which are the most interesting to the community. Online talks by Mars experts will address some of the submitted questions.

By contributing, website users will win game points assigned to a robotic animal avatar they select.

"With so much data coming back from Mars missions that are accessible by all, exploring Mars has become a shared human endeavor. People worldwide can expand the specialized efforts of a few hundred Mars mission team members and make authentic contributions of their own,” said Doug McCuistion, director of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington in a release.

Mars in fact has been getting a lot of attention recently. NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) last week said they are aiming to cooperate on all manner of robotic orbiters, landers and exploration devices for a future trip to Mars.

Specifically, NASA and ESA recently agreed to consider the establishment of a new joint initiative to define and implement their scientific, programmatic, and technological goals for the exploration of Mars. The program would focus on several launch opportunities with landers and orbiters conducting astrobiological, geological, geophysical, climatological, and other high-priority investigations and aiming at returning samples from Mars in the mid-2020s.

And the ESA recently said it wants volunteers to take a simulated 520-day trip to Mars. Starting in 2010, an international crew of six will simulate a 520-day round-trip to Mars, including a 30-day stay on the Martian surface. The 'mission' is part of the Mars500 program being conducted by ESA and Russia's Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) to study human psychological, medical and physical capabilities and limitations in space through fundamental and operational research.

And on the real planet, NASA said last week it was beginning the long process of extricating its Mars rover Spirit from a sand trap. Spirit has been stuck in a place NASA calls "Troy" since April 23 when the rover's wheels broke through a crust on the surface that was covering a bright-toned, slippery sand underneath. After a few drive attempts to get Spirit out in the subsequent days, it began sinking deeper in the sand trap. Driving was suspended to allow time for tests and reviews of possible escape strategies, NASA stated.