Twitters From Mars!

The Robotic Arm on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander carries a scoop of Martian soil bound for the spacecraft's microscope.
The Robotic Arm on NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander carries a scoop of Martian soil bound for the spacecraft's microscope. (Ho - Reuters)
By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 14, 2008

The most nerve-racking moments of the mission came three weeks ago, when the Phoenix Mars lander touched down on the Red Planet's dusty surface. From 13,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft screeched to a 5 mph crawl, broke through the Martian atmosphere and gently landed.

"parachute is open!!!!!"

"come on rocketssssss!!!!!"

"I've landed!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

"Cheers! Tears!! I'm here!"

It is the closest we've come to communicating with life on Mars.

The Phoenix vehicle is a robot, but the information it sends back to Earth is being translated for the public via Twitter, a popular micro-blogging site that lets people send quick updates to friends by computer or cellphone. For the past month, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been posting dozens of short updates every day, revealing snippets of what the spacecraft and Earth-bound scientists are seeing.

The team at the lab decided to send out "tweets," or short updates, rather than maintaining a blog so that people could keep track of the landing while traveling or picnicking over Memorial Day weekend. But the experiment got such a great response -- it now has more than 20,000 followers -- that the team has continued to use Twitter to share details of their findings on Mars.

"It's very humbling, and thrilling that so many people care to follow. Want to be careful I don't 'over-twitter' my welcome," reads one message.

In another, the lander told followers about getting ready to dig through the soil in search of ice. "Images will confirm whether my arm restraints have opened, and whether my wrist and elbow have moved. It's nice to stretch a bit!"

Those are actually the words of Veronica McGregor, the jet lab's news services manager, who writes the tweets in response to questions from fellow Twitterers and keeps them informed of other news coming from Mars. Because Twitter posts can be only 140 characters long, McGregor opted to write in the first person. The posts can be viewed at http://www.twitter.com/MarsPhoenix.

"Try to explain engineering and science in 140 characters or less!" she said. She often ends up posting updates at odd hours to keep up with Mars time -- a day on Mars is longer than a day on Earth, so the Earth-bound team, based mostly in Tucson, starts working a half-hour later each day. The scientists now come to work at about 4 a.m. to monitor the lander's progress.

Yesterday, followers learned of a big accomplishment: Martian soil was collected and is in the process of being baked in an oven, which runs tests on the gases released from the particles. "A cause for celebration: soil successfully went to microscope this AM; oven has started cooking a sample; and 20,000 Twitter followers. Thx!"


© 2008 The Washington Post Company