As Phoenix approached Mars, it suddenly acquired a voice and began broadcasting status updates to Earth via an Internet service called Twitter. For those of you not in the know (a group that, admittedly, included me, before I was forced to figure it out as a result of Phoenix' activity), Twitter is a service that allows people to write to, and read, a blog, using the sorts of devices from which you might send text messages. It is sometimes referred to as a "micro-blogging" service because each post is limited to 140 characters. (FYI, a Twitter post is called a "tweet.") For those of you who do know what Twitter is, skip the next couple of paragraphs.
Twitter can also be used to ask and answer questions. When you see a tweet that has an "@" sign in it, that indicates that another Twitterer is being addressed directly. So, for instance, Twitter user "bayol" asked Phoenix a question by tweeting: "@MarsPhoenix If perchlorate is found in rocket fuel, Isn't it pretty obvious that it probably came from your soft landing procedure?" And Phoenix replied: "@bayol The retro rockets for landing used hydrazine fuel, not perchlorate."
The Phoenix Twitter feed is remarkably successful, with more than 32,000 signed-up followers, which undercounts the actual number of readers. By comparison, television personality Stephen Colbert, whose devotees are mostly very Internet-savvy, has (as of the time I wrote this) only 13,800 Twitter followers. Seeing the success of the Phoenix Twitter feed, a ton of other spacecraft suddenly jumped on the bandwagon and also started Twittering away. Here's a few examples of tweeting spacecraft (there are more):
Some of these use the medium more successfully than others. From the outset, Phoenix' has been awesome. That's due in large part to the voice behind "MarsPhoenix," JPL public information officer Veronica McGregor, who has been comfortable with the medium from the get-go. I am amazed by the amount of personality and the quantity of factual detail that she's able to squeeze into the narrow limitation of 140 characters per post. A couple of other recent tweets: "A new pinch of soil, named Rosy Red 3, is in TEGA oven #5. Baking starts today to analyze chemical properties. This is my 3rd bake test :-)" and, useful for me, "Reports claiming there was a White House briefing are also untrue and incorrect" and, one of my recent favorites, "@nantel I'm doing what a guy with a shovel could do in 10 seconds? True, but I'm here a couple decades before that guy. :)"
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and LCROSS started out a bit bumpy, with lots of tweets simply pointing to content on the mission websites. That wasn't very useful. But as the spacecraft are getting ready for launch, there have been frequent updates on each tiny step that both have to go through to get integrated, tested, and buttoned up. This is more useful, but still lacking in detail compared to MarsPhoenix. LRO tweets less-than-informative things like "I'm being tested today." and "I'm happy that my HGAS pop and catch was successfully completed." A Google search doesn't turn up what the heck the latter one is talking about. If they're going to try to communicate with the public, it would probably good to try to do it in a way that, well, communicates something! Hopefully they'll improve with time.
New Horizons, too, has lately joined in, and is beginning to establish a voice for the spacecraft. But it's struggling to make good use of the medium as well. There's simply not much for New Horizons to talk about these days that would demand the use of the fast-response medium of Twitter. I think this entry sums up the problem: "Ahhhh, another day, another million miles on the road to Pluto!"
I think it's a good idea for missions to use all the media out there to reach out to the public, and to evolve with the changing media environment. However, it's clear that missions need to find the right people to do the outreach, people who figure out how to use the medium to their advantage. I haven't used Twitter yet myself because I don't think I'd do any better with it than, say, LRO_NASA does. And until I'm sure I can do it well, I'm not going to do it at all. Ditto with Facebook; I've joined and have a slowly growing list of friends and well-wishers but am not real sure I can use it well to actually teach people anything, and it doesn't help that I am often too busy to visit the page for weeks at a time. (For those of you who have recently requested friendhood, I'm not snubbing you, I just haven't had time.) Maybe one of these days I'll get more comfortable with all these newfangled media! For now I'll stick with this old-fashioned blog medium, and continue to feel out streaming video.
If you are really in to all this social networking stuff, you might check out all the space missions that are on Facebook. Thanks to Keri Bean, originator of the first space mission Facebook identity (Mars Rovers) for this list (sorry I didn't have time to plug them in as links): Phoenix Mars Lander, Mars Rovers, Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter, Lcross Lunar Impactor, Hubble Telescope, Webb Telescope, Glast Satellite, Snap Satellite, Swift Satellite, Xmm-Newton Satellite, Glory Mission, Kepler Mission, and Aura Spacecraft. And the International Year of Astronomy has a Facebook identity, "Iya Cosmos."
I asked Keri why she thought this was valuable and she said: "I think it's a great way to reach out informally. I got tons of people asking questions after Phoenix announced the water ice, so I made a blog explaining how the scientists determined it was water ice, which got a lot of comments, including the most memorable "Now *this* is the kind of communication I like to see from NASA!" I see Facebook as a great outreach tool, especially for the younger crowd/Gen Y who would normally not keep up with NASA missions.