NEW YORK – As part of a newly released “Live from Mars” update for Google Mars 3-D, the general public can track Mars orbiters in flight and download raw imagery of the red planet within days or hours of it reaching Earth – a level of access once unheard of outside of mission control.

Google Inc. worked with NASA to launch in February a Mars add-on to Google Earth, the popular Web-based program that combines satellite imagery and aerial photography with other geographic information to create a 3-D virtual globe.

The Google Mars update released March 13 includes new features such as watching orbital tracks of spacecraft in real-time, peeling back historical globe maps of Mars and taking a guided fly-around tour of the red planet.

“As exciting as the initial release of Mars was [in Google Earth 5.0], it was difficult for some users to figure out,” said Michael Weiss-Malik, product manager for Mars in Google Earth. Checking out a friend’s house on Google Earth is one thing, but trying to navigate the canyon system of VallesMarineris represents a bigger challenge.

Google Mars users can now get their bearings with the help of a planetary tour narrated by Ira Flatow, radio host of NPR Science Friday.

Both researchers and casual users alike can look forward to getting new Mars data almost immediately from orbiting spacecraft, sometimes within a few hours of the download to NASA.

“It’s as raw as it possibly can be,” said Noel Gorelick, tech lead for the GoogleAstro team. Such data looks nothing like the processed, cleaned-up images that already provide Google Mars 3-D with its sweeping views, but Gorelick noted that researchers might get a preview of information to come.

This “Live from Mars” feature included in the update should only encounter occasional delays in getting new data, such as when NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter had to reboot recently.

Google Mars 3-D users can already go instantly to the location of certain NASA landers and rovers. But the update also provides real-time tracking of Mars orbiters, and allows users to anticipate what the spacecraft might take pictures of next along their various paths.

Those wanting a different view can sift through older maps of Mars, which hold historical interest rather than scientific accuracy. An early map by Nathaniel Green from 1877 includes notable early features such as the “Beer Continent,” named after German astronomer Wilhelm Beer. Giovanni Schiaparelli’s famous map from that time period is also available, including the mistranslated “canali” that encouraged decades of speculation about canals crisscrossing a martian civilization.

Google’s team hopes that NASA will increasingly use Google Mars 3-D as an information platform, and maybe to plan out future steps for missions such as the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

“The Rover team was by far the most interesting response,” Gorelick said. “They were kind of jumping up and down about how cool it was.”

Both Weiss-Malik and Gorelick represent ex-NASA science team members who brought their interest in space to Google. They scraped together willing engineers and programmers to create Google Mars 3-D during their “20 percent time,” which Google provides to encourage employees to pursue creative, independent side projects. Examples of other products created during “20 percent time” include the widely used Gmail feature.

The update should hopefully allow users to contribute more information to Google Mars, just as they already provide most of the new information in Google Earth.

“We want to reach a tipping point where external contributors are contributing most of the content,” Weiss-Malik said. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s when we’ll have achieved success.”f