Twittering 'from Mars'

'Cheers! Tears! I'm here!' Mars Lander declares

"The parachute is open!!"

"Come on Rocketssssss!!!"

"I've landed !!!!!"

"Cheers! Tears! I'm here!"

Those were the messages that NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory sent out on micro-blogging site Twitter in a five-minute time span May 25 as its Phoenix Mars Lander descended and touched down on the Red Planet.

The messages were sent during what NASA describes as "seven minutes of terror" as the lander entered the Martian atmosphere and braked from 13,000 mph to 5 mph for its descent and touchdown. Tensions were high because in 1999, NASA's Mars Polar Lander crashed and was destroyed when attempting to land on Mars because of malfunctions during the descent.

The Phoenix mission marks the first time the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) has used Twitter, and the agency has been overwhelmed by the response, officials said. Users following NASA's Phoenix Twitter updates -- now more than 18,500 strong -- can access the 140-character updates (sometimes called mini-blogs) on a PC, phone or other mobile device and ask questions back to the people at NASA posting the updates.

"I thought about doing this a month or six weeks before the landing," said Rhea Borja, media relations officer at JPL, yesterday. "I thought it would be a great way to pull in kids and twenty-somethings who are using these types of Web 2.0 applications. They don't necessarily have to be in front of a computer to monitor or get updates on what is going on with the Phoenix mission. It provides a portal for folks to get information from us in bite-sized increments."

While NASA thought Twitter would be a good way to attract a new audience, the agency didn't anticipate how popular the Twitter updates would become, she added.

NASA has been inundated with questions about the lander, which the space agency has brought to life by posting in the first person to update the lander's activities.

"They ask questions from, 'What is the Martian environment like?' to very specific questions about the instrumentation of the lander," Borja noted. "People are talking about how the lander has its own personality now because we talk about everything in the first person. People think it is like this plucky, optimistic and determined creature."

While the JPL has a blog related to the mission where interested citizens can ask questions, Twitter provides a faster way to update because all posts are limited to 140 characters. It's also a way for NASA to post URLs pointing its followers to online photos and videos of the mission offline events like press conferences.

"They can listen in on our conferences with a panel of five people talking about the late science results or what we're doing [with the lander]," she added. "They didn't have that kind of access before. They could have, but it would have taken a lot of digging to find that URL. Twitter makes them seem more like an insider."

Twitter, which began as a way for users to keep up with what their friends were doing through posts answering Twitter's universal "What are you doing?" question, has begun to pick up steam with businesses. Some companies, including Comcast Corp., are using Twitter as a way to monitor customer comments and complaints about their products and to respond to clients directly through the service.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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