Its scientists have watched the heavens for more than 60 years, but these days the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge is itself a star.
Millions of Web surfers are monitoring the progress of the Mars Sojourner, the small rover vehicle that touched down on the red planet July 4, while CNN and other media outlets are providing blow-by-blow coverage of the Mars Pathfinder mission.
For JPL, which has suffered budget cuts and job losses in recent years, the timing couldn't be better.
The publicity surrounding the Martian expedition has resulted in a burst of activity at the facility's Technology Affiliates Program offices, which licenses JPL's creations and contraptions to industry.
In addition, the success of the mission could pay dividends during budget appropriation time.
"In the scheme of how Congress works with its budget process, the popularity of this mission will be noticed," said Merton Davies, a space projects researcher at RAND and a member of planetary imaging teams on several JPL space missions.
"I think the success of this mission gave a boost to NASA and JPL, but what that may mean in concrete terms, it's too early to tell," he added.
But it's not too soon to gauge the impact of the Sojourner on private licensing agreements, which is emerging as a relatively small but profitable sideline for the space exploration lab.
"I've been incredibly deluged with calls from people wanting to do something with the Sojourner," said Joan Horvath, Business Alliances Manager of the Technical Affiliates Program. "People want to make Sojourner T-shirts and hats and other things. But what's good is that this pulse has aroused a lot of interest for our other technology."
Usually, the "Tech Transfer" offices receive a phone inquiry every one or two or three days, Horvath said. Because the office also hooks up companies with JPL scientists to conduct research for them, most of the calls typically pertain to how JPL's technology can be used to tackle a company's problem or incorporated in a product.
But since the July 4 Mars touchdown, a dozen companies and entrepreneurs have called each day with ideas for products linked to the Pathfinder mission or other space technology.
Most are hoping for the kind of response that Mattel Inc. has had with its Hot Wheels JPL Sojourner Mars Rover Action Pack. It's a mini version of the lander and rover vehicle, complete with its six rock-skipping locomotive wheels.
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