What is @MarsCuriosity?
@MarsCuriosity is the Twitter account of NASA’s latest robot rover on Mars. @MarsCuriosity burst into the spotlight as the NASA social media team live tweeted its successful landing on Mars on August 5/6, 2012.
Curiosity is on a mission to find out if life ever existed on the red planet, and to collect data for a future manned mission to Mars. The rover runs on a combination of nuclear and solar energy, and has been designed to operate for two years on the surface of Mars.
Curiosity launched from Florida, and travelled eight months and 566 million kilometres to Mars. The entire project has cost NASA $2.5 billion.
In 2008, the three-person social media team created a Twitter account. They updated from the point of view of Curiosity using a first-person voice and simple English – or, as Mashable put it, the “voice of the Internet.”
The first tweet from @MarsCuriosity:
“I’m WAY cool, nearly built, and I need a name. A contest for kids to name me: http://is.gd/85rQ (lots of nice vids here, too. Click on *2*)”
The story grew with daily chronological updates on Twitter, and eventually Facebook, enriched with transmedia — links to NASA/JPL mission reports, photos from the Jet Propulsion Lab where Curiosity was built and tested, and the live stream show Curiosity Cam covering NASA tweet ups and mission briefings.
“This week, I’ve been testing my newly attached arm & practicing hand-eye coordination. New video at http://bit.ly/b1vnnT” (September 2010)
“I HAVE LIFTOFF!” (November 2011)
“My 2012 New Year’s Resolution? Get to Mars in 215 days.” (January 2012)
Curiosity is not the only Mars rover to tweet. Its elder siblings, Spirit and Opportunity, which landed on Mars in 2004 are active on Twitter too – @MarsRovers. Both rovers were designed to last only 90 days, but lasted much longer. Both practically rewrote the book on Mars. Space explorer enthusiasts are hopeful that Curiosity too will unearth new twists in the Mars story.
As Dr Charles Elachi, Director, NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, said:
“Tomorrow we’re going to start exploring Mars. And next week and next month and next year, we’ll be bringing new discoveries every day, every week, to all of you.”
Importance for NASA
The Mars landing has revived the controversial topic of NASA’s steep budget, which has been on a steady decline since the mid-1960s and has just faced a budget cut of $200 in the Mars exploration program by the Obama administration. The proposal has in effect shut down missions to Mars beyond 2014.
Some, such as Alyssa Rosenberg, of ‘Journalist Think Progressive’, think space exploration is worth the investment:
“What the scientists at JPL did last night was a critical part of our future in space not simply because they did something extremely difficult that will advance our understanding of the planet that’s fascinated so many of us so deeply and for so long, but because they helped keep the dream alive at all, reminding of what it’s like to watch the future arrive, and how cheap it is to purchase in comparison to what we spend to maintain conflicts and policies that mire us in the past.”
But others, such as Roger Hendrix, commented that the money could have been better spent:
“I am PRO SPACE PROGRAM, BUT doing the same things over and over are a waste of time and $$$$. There are SO MUCH more we could be doing to aim us in a direction to save ourselves and we are fumbling with Mars rocks ”
It is thus important for NASA to communicate the success of its missions, and the benefits of advancing space technologies. Storytelling is a crucial tool in NASA’s mission to create an emotional bond with the American public, and it’s a tool that NASA wields boldly.
Telling the story from outer space
Curiosity can communicate directly to Earth using a space transponder, but at very low bandwidths and at a time lag of around 14 minutes. She can broadcast higher bandwidths to NASA’s two Mars Orbiters, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Odyssey, when they are in range.
She has been outfitted with 17 cameras to collect data from her surroundings on Mars; the first images have already been tweeted by @MarsCuriosity.
Storytelling to simplify science
To ensure that the project designed by rocket scientists would be accessible to the layman, NASA tailored content to suit different groups.
Most famous of these is the video ‘7 minutes of Terror,’ in which NASA scientists explain the challenges of landing the 1-ton Curiosity, the heaviest payload ever delivered to the Mars surface. Set to dramatic music, and filled with interviews, beautiful graphics, animations and text, the video has been broadcast on TV and shared across the internet.
In addition to simplifying the science through stories, NASA also took steps to involve people with the project on a personal level.
In 2009, NASA tied up with Disney Pixar’s Wall-E to launch a contest for US school children: Name NASA’s next Mars Rover. Ten finalists were selected and the winner was decided in a round of public voting in 2009. 65,559 people voted, and the winner was 6th grader Clara Ma’s ‘Curiosity.’
An excerpt from 6th grader Clara Ma’s entry:
“Curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives. We have become explorers and scientists with our need to ask questions and to wonder. Sure, there are many risks and dangers, but despite that, we still continue to wonder and dream and create and hope. We have discovered so much about the world, but still so little. We will never know everything there is to know, but with our burning curiosity, we have learned so much.”
NASA also invited people to ‘send their name to Mars,’ and appealed to ‘Tweeters and Trekkies’ by roping in William Shatner and Wil Wheaton of Star Trek fame. Shatner and Wheaton each narrated the video ‘Grand Entrance’ created to spread awareness about the August 5/6 landing. (source – WSFA.com)
Coverage of the landing
On the night of August 5, 2012, Americans gathered to view a special broadcast from NASA Mission Control in science centres, museums and Times Square. Tension was high as NASA’s eight years of hard work and $2.5 billion of US taxpayer money was put to test in the crucial seven minutes.
Adam Steltzner, the entry descent and landing lead, shared his feelings before the landing:
“When I look back at the hard work that we’ve done, we’ve done everything that we can to deserve success tonight, although as we all know, we cannot guarantee success… We’re rationally confident, emotionally terrified, and ready for EDL.”
The TV broadcast shows the NASA team breaking into celebration when a successful landing was confirmed. @MarsCuriosity tweeted confirmation as well:
“I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!! #MSL”
Amplification of the story
The landing was covered by the global media, trended on Twitter with multiple hashtags and inspired new memes.
@MarsCuriosity added half a million followers within the first 24 hours; its first tweet from Mars was retweeted nearly 72,000 times.
Flight Director Bobak Ferdowsi, who sported a special mohawk in honour of the occasion, became an instant crowd favourite, shooting from 200 followers to 36,000, with memes sprouting across the web, and his own fan club. He even received a wedding proposal from @amaeryllis:
“@tweetsoutloud I know you’ve been busy, but will you marry me? land something on mars if the answer is yes.”
Several Twitter users called for an Olympic medal for Curiosity. Ivan Brandon tweeted:
“What’s the name of the Olympics category where you land a robot on another planet?”
Brands joined in on the excitement as well, with Oreos posting a red Oreo on its Facebook page, in salute to the Mars landing.
The hype grew so much that Google had to revise its Google Doodle of the day to include the rover, to appease the vocal Twitter community.
The successful landing marked a milestone in US space exploration, with people, celebrities and politicians congratulating NASA on its achievement. More importantly, the event helped revive the country’s passion for space exploration and dreams of landing a man on Mars – an event President Barack Obama aims to see happen by 2030.
Obama released a statement of congratulations:
“The successful landing of Curiosity – the most sophisticated roving laboratory ever to land on another planet – marks an unprecedented feat of technology that will stand as a point of national pride far into the future.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden took the opportunity to re-establish NASA’s success as a matter of national pride:
“It’s a huge day for the nation, it’s a huge day for all of our partners and it’s a huge day for the American people. Everybody in the morning should be sticking their chests out, saying ‘that’s my rover on Mars.’ Because it belongs to all of us.”
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