Social Media and Space

“I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!!”. This, in case you haven’t been following was the first ‘post-landing’ tweet by NASA’s Curiosity Rover on the Red Planet. The rover touched down on the rocky, dusty surface at approximately 6:30am British Summertime on Monday morning (6th August) and was met by a swarm of interest on the social networks, especially Twitter.

Shortly after landing, Curiosity ‘tweeted’ several photographs illustrating its successful arrival, as well as the Martian sun hanging low over the blurry horizon. I think it would be safe to say that this was one of the most gripping extra-terrestrial events experienced since the explosive growth of Twitter from 2006 onwards. The Curiosity rover (or at least the three members of NASA’s social media team responsible) provided updates via Twitter along its journey, which got more and more intense as it got closer and closer to entering the planet’s atmosphere.

Using the hashtag ‘#MSL’ (Mars Science Laboratory) followers could keep up with Curiosity’s decent, and converse with other tweeters about the unfolding excitement. The rover’s account was giving updates in a way that seemed almost real-time, which also added a real sense of momentum to the event.

Let’s not forget though, that this mission, like previous missions to Mars was an incredible financial and reputational risk for NASA. I guess the most heart stopping moment was when the $2.5bn rover actually started to enter Mars’ atmosphere: “Entering Mars’atmosphere.7.Minutes.Of.Terror.Starts.Now. #MSL”. This ‘terror’ felt by NASA summed up the fragility of the whole mission, and maybe the repercussions if the landing was to fail!

For the first time here, the exploration of another world has been documented and shared though social media, which reveals a couple of interesting things. Firstly, that if used in the right way, social media can engage people in something that they would not normally have much access to. So far, space related projects have mostly been shown on traditional media, such as television, which has up to now allowed that much social interaction. Secondly, and possibly more importantly, it has allowed what is essentially a lab on wheels to have something much more human. Curiosity has a personality.

As more and more of the rover’s equipment become operational (hopefully!) over the next few weeks, I personally can’t wait to see what discoveries Curiosity will share with us!

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