All the twitter about the Mars Phoenix lander

Didn’t think a spacecraft had personality? You haven’t met the Mars Phoenix lander.

The lander gets excited, which it did June 11 when it got the first soil sample into its onboard lab: “And the great news is, the soil shaking finally worked! I've got an oven full of Martian dirt to analyze, and a lot of happy scientists.”

The machine also showed a romantic side June 7: “Tonight, go outside and look up at the crescent moon. That ‘star’ just above the moon isn't a star, it's Mars. I'll be waving.”

Phoenix even has friends on Facebook.

“I think it’s a very determined creature, very optimistic, very plucky,” said Rhea Borja, Media Relations Officer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She came up with the idea to create a feed on Twitter, a microblogging Web site, to help attract a younger group of space enthusiasts.

It worked.

“The people who are following the Mars Phoenix Twitter, they’re people who don’t typically read air and space stories or follow missions,” Borja said. “It’s like a whole new world for them – literally.”

The lander’s personality comes from Veronica McGregor, manager of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Media Relations Office. She set up the feed a few weeks before Phoenix, which was launched in August 2007, landed on Mars on May 25.

The $420 million lander will analyze ice and soil in the Martian arctic to study the history of water there and search for conditions that could support life.

The plan was to set up a blog to update people about Phoenix’s progress, but that involves a lot of people and can be very time-consuming, McGregor said. A blog was still set up, but Borja’s idea to use Twitter seemed like the ideal way to give people up-to-the-minute information, McGregor said.

“The great thing about Twitter is that you don’t have to be in front of the computer to get updates. You can get them on your cell phone wherever you are,” Borja said. “So, I thought, ‘How cool would that be if you were out and about with friends and you’re having dinner and getting the countdown of the spacecraft [to its landing]?’”

Space bloggers were the first to take notice of the Twitter feed, or “tweets,” she said. Then the mainstream media picked it up and the number of subscribers rose quickly. Today, about 20,000 people subscribe to the Twitter feed and 1,400 are fans of the JPL Facebook page.

Borja thinks Twitter has the lion’s share of followers because updates are in real time and specific to the mission. Also, not everyone wants a Facebook page, she added.

“I think Twitter makes it feel more real” to users, she said. “They get information faster and they feel more engaged because it’s not them just passively receiving information. It’s them asking us questions and NASA responding directly to their questions, and not just that, but responding as the lander…. We use first person – I – which also makes it more personal.”

McGregor agreed.

“Twitter is more dynamic. It’s instantaneous, people are getting it immediately” on their cell phones or computer desktops, or on the Phoenix Twitter Web page, she said. “Facebook is more something people check once or twice a day.”

Anything McGregor posts on Twitter also shows up on the Facebook page, which highlights all missions, not just Phoenix. The page, which is viewable by non-members, also includes photos and videos. McGregor uses TinyURL to create links to the multimedia on Twitter.

McGregor tries not to post tweets, which cannot exceed 140 characters, more than 10 times a day to avoid inundating followers. And that is exactly the amount of information about the mission that people want each day, she said.

For JPL, the social-networking sites are a great source of feedback, McGregor said. She’s documenting her experience with Twitter to create a best practices document for others at JPL and NASA to use. The agencies have already set up pages for future missions, she added.

McGregor often updates the Web sites after her usual work hours. The draw for putting in the extra effort comes from “knowing that there’s that many people out there who care to follow it and are genuinely excited about it,” she said. “There are so many wonderful comments that come back from people saying that they would never have followed the mission, they never would have paid attention to this mission” otherwise.

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