Over the last few weeks here on Giz, the Mars Phoenix Lander, already a prolific Twitterer, became the first spacecraft to blog from its cold, unforgiving home tens of millions of miles away on Mars as its mission came to end—culminating in a touching goodbye this past Monday. As some of you may have guessed (and, for the rest of you, hate to burst the bubble), Phoenix had some help. Meet JPL's Manager of News Services Veronica McGregor, the voice of Mars Phoenix Lander.
The story of Phoenix's tweeting started when it became clear that the landing date—the most critical point of any mission—would be over Memorial Day weekend, when many American hit the road for beaches, barbecues and beer. McGregor realised that Twitter's SMS updates may have been the perfect way to reach people interested in the mission via their phones when they weren't in front of a TV or computer.
So a few weeks before Phoenix was scheduled to land on Mars, without thinking about it too much, Veronica started a Twitter page for the mission with a single tweet: "Less than 20 days till I land on Mars!" On top of reaching people's phones, Twitter also seemed like the perfect way to get info out quickly and easily without having to deal with the typical NASA bureacracy that tended to bog down news blogs for past missions.
There was no publicity, no big media push to promote it—just a single announcement on a serious space geek forum, unmannedspaceflight.com. But the next day, over 3,000 people were following MarsPhoenix on Twitter. The day after that: 6,000. And after getting tossed around on the bigger Tweeters feeds, it was off.
"After that, I kind of had a "there goes my summer" moment." Veronica remembers. "After we saw that everybody else was mentioning it, we thought 'hey maybe we should put something on our homepage.'"
Two specifics of Twitter's messaging format made Phoenix's tweets take off. To fit into the 140 character max for each post, writing tweets in first-person quickly became the easiest way to squeeze in the most possible information.
Second is Twitter's direct response feature, which allowed Veronica to answer submitted questions in the best way possible. Who wouldn't want to receive a first-person tweet directly addressed to them?
Now with over 39,000 followers, with almost no one dropping the feed now that the mission is technically complete, MarsPhoenix is one of the biggest Tweeters in the history of the site. It no surprise, then, that Veronica has also been tweeting for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers (although not in first person, as per the mission director) and plans to carry on in first person for the upcoming Mars Science Lab mission.
We here at Giz were honored to be the home for Phoenix's final words, although sometimes it's kind of a morale-killer: how could my posts ever possibly top a robot's coming direct from Mars?