"Live" From Mars
The Phoenix Mars Mission Lander zipped across more than 400 million miles of space, beat the odds of landing successfully (more than half of all Mars missions have failed), and confirmed the existence of water ice on the Red Planet. The lander also accomplished quite a feat for a NASA spacecraft—it became a celebrity through the social messaging service known as Twitter.
Twitter is a website that lets people sign up and create a "twitter feed," a webpage that hosts all of their entries and updates. The entries can also be posted in a "twitter badge," like the ones shown here, that displays the latest post. The messages are necessarily brief, with each entry limited to 140 characters, about the same length as a text message.
The technologically inclined have long used the service to post up-to-the-minute information about their activities for anyone to see. But the Phoenix Lander is the first spacecraft to find a voice through this social media. The lander's entries, written under the user name MarsPhoenix, are in the first person, as if the lander itself is speaking from the reaches of space. Take a look at the following posts, sent in quick succession before the craft touched down on martian soil on the evening of May 25, 2008:
@MarsPhoenix: parachute must open next. my signal still getting to Earth which is AWESOME. parachute opening is scariest part for the team. 4:49 PM May 25th from web
Veronica McGregor is the woman behind the curtain. She crafted the lander's crisp, lively posts before, during, and after her workday as Media Relations Manager for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Over the course of the mission, she used the MarsPhoenix Twitter feed to respond to questions and comments from the general public. McGregor was surprised by how quickly and completely Twitter users accepted the conceit. By the mission's end, nearly 40,000 people had subscribed to the feed. Several even wrote in to ask for the lander's hand in marriage.
But the anthropomorphic fun couldn't last forever.
"I'm resting a lot but still communicating with orbiters once per day," McGregor wrote on behalf of Phoenix in early November, as sunlight—and solar power—dwindled. "Still hoping to get a bit of strength back & maybe do more science."
On November 10, NASA declared mission operations at an end—they hadn't heard from the lander in a week. This was expected because of the extreme cold and dwindling sunlight. When the martian winter fully settles in, carbon-dioxide snow and ice will encase the little lander, and because Phoenix is in the planet's polar region, summer won't arrive until May 2010. By then it's likely that the extreme cold will have cracked vital electronics, rendering Phoenix inoperable, but if the lander does wake up, it's programmed to notify NASA.
McGregor hopes that NASA will maintain the momentum and retain its new fans, even if MarsPhoenix tweets no more.
"Phoenix's dying wish," she wrote, embodying the spacecraft once again, "is that everyone who followed and became interested in the mission look at the other missions that NASA is doing. Pick a mission and stay involved."
McGregor is already working on Twitter accounts for several more celestial objects. See the sidebar for MarsPhoenix's Twitter feed and the latest posts from the martian rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, and from the MarsScienceLab, set to launch in 2009.—Rachel VanCott
© | Created November 2008