NASA lands cosmic first with “tweets” from Mars

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By Ian Sherr

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) – If the Phoenix Lander comes back to life on Mars, Twitter users could be among the first to know.

NASA gave the historic Space Age mission an Internet Age spin by adding a Twitter page, enabling the robotic interplanetary explorer to answer the hot micro-blogging website’s trademark query: “What are you doing?”

Twitter rocketed to popularity with technology that lets people use mobile telephones or personal computers to continually keep friends updated on their activities with “tweets,” text messages of no more than 140 characters.

When NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory News Services manager Veronica McGregor was tasked with delivering word of the agency’s first-ever robotic landing on Mars during a holiday weekend, she turned to the social-networking website.

“Readership and viewership in traditional news media usually goes down over a three-day weekend,” said McGregor, a former CNN correspondent.

“The fact that Twitter could send messages right to people’s cell phones — it seemed like a good idea to let people know about the landing.”

So McGregor created a plucky persona for the 420-million-dollar robot and planted a flag on a new NASA frontier: Twitter-verse.

“I dig Mars!” was among Lander Tweets. Blog posts after its unprecedented May touch-down included an ice-discovery message ending with “w00t!!! Best day ever!!”

Tweets at twitter.com/MarsPhoenix won numerous Internet awards and garnered nearly 40,000 dedicated followers — 2,000 of whom joined after NASA lost contact with the Lander in November.

“There was a certain joy and exuberance that came with every day, and every sight it was seeing,” McGregor said. “I think people really related to that.”

The Lander’s writing style helped the blog stand out, according to Twitter co-founder Biz Stone.

“It was the way she chose to send out the updates — in the first person and anthropomorphizing the Lander — that really made all of the difference,” Stone said. “As a result, NASA gets a level of engagement with citizens they didn’t have before.”

NASA is not the first major organization to get its message out on Twitter. Computer maker Dell began using Twitter in January to publish Internet-only sales bargains. US cable television giant Comcast sent service trouble missives over the service.

Some media organizations have also been using Twitter to gather timely, first-hand accounts from witnesses or to provide news updates to subscribers. CNN regularly presents live responses from Twitter users on the cable network, with footage of the service’s feed on a computer screen.

Many businesses have turned to social-networking services MySpace and Facebook to spread messages.

McGregor prefers Twitter for its speed. “A lot of people said that the short posts were exactly the right amount of information they wanted to know,” she said.

That pithiness, mixed with a little attitude, impressed Wired.com writer Alexis Madrigal.

“In the near-term, NASA has found an absolutely outstanding way to reach large numbers of influential people at a fairly low investment,” Madrigal said.

NASA has begun setting up Twitter accounts for other missions in hopes of repeating their success.

“I’m hoping the lesson they’ll take from this is that you need freedom to craft a character and a feed that will be appealing to people,” Madrigal said.

McGregor said she is giving presentations throughout NASA on her successful experiment while pressing the agency to explore new communications strategies.

As for the Lander, it sent this farewell tweet: “I should stay well-preserved in this cold. I’ll be humankind’s monument here for centuries, eons, until future explorers come for me.”

(Published Dec 5, 2008 on the wire with Agence France-Presse)