Doug Ellison at Europlanet 2008: To reach out, let people in
All this week, Doug Ellison will be filing reports from the third European Planetary Science Congress, also known as Europlanet, taking place in Münster, Germany. Doug is the dictator-for-life of the online forum unmannedspaceflight.com. Thanks, Doug! --ESL
by Doug Ellison
Wednesday is outreach day here in Münster, which means I was giving my oral presentation "Bootleg Postcards: The unofficial biographies of Spirit and Opportunity". For reasons I will explain below, I ended up giving it twice.
The outreach sessions started with another great overview of the CASSIE Web-based application. Now on version 2, it lets you ride along with Cassini, explore the spacecraft and the main moons of the Saturnian system. It is fantastic to see the pitching, rolling, and yawing the spacecraft goes through to switch from taking observations, to transmitting to Earth and so on. I could spend hours (in fact, I just did!) watching the extended tour unfold. Go and try it, and imagine the same technology applying to future missions. The potential is enormous, and Alice Wessen's Cassini outreach office should be credited for seeing the potential and letting Kevin Hussey and his team develop a tool like this.
Kevin was followed by Mike Evans who spoke about the UK involvement in the Cassini Scientist for a Day program. About twice a year, school children are challenged to write compelling scientific cases to decide between several options for Cassini observations (the observations are required for navigation anyway). This seems a superb way to give young people a taste of some of the decision-making processes and challenges that real scientists have to go through, and some students have already started out on career paths that involved planetary science as a result. When I see programs like that, I wish I was 20 years younger.
Jane Houston-Jones moved the proceedings along by discussing the Saturn Observation Campaign, a network of more than 400 amateur astronomers from 54 countries around the world who organize Saturn observing evenings for the general public. I was surprised to see reports of star parties around the entire globe - India, Benin, Vietnam and even Iraq. If you've never seen Saturn through a telescope, find an event and go and do it, because it really is an awe-inspiring sight. Don't let the imagery from Cassini lull you into thinking you've seen all Saturn has to offer; it's something special even through a modest telescope with your own eyes.
Next up, Veronica McGregor from Media Relations at JPL discussed new media. For more than 35,000 people, Veronica is the voice of the Phoenix Mars lander via the MarsPhoenix Twitter page -- I hope I don't shatter any illusions in telling people that it's not actually the spacecraft writing these updates. Veronica writes them in the first person simply because "I did..." takes fewer of the 140-character Twitter limit than "The spacecraft was commanded to...". With circulation of traditional print media and viewership of television news down, people are getting their news in other ways. It started out as an experiment in keeping 3,000 or so people informed about the Phoenix landing via Twitter's SMS service. Now with more than ten times that, it's the sixth most popular Twitter feed in the world, and still growing at an impressive rate. What Veronica has discovered is that Twitter works best as a dialogue. She takes feedback from other Twitterers, and answers popular questions in the form of Twitter feeds, giving a roughly 50/50 ratio of