What is simultaneously amazing and obvious about social media – and in this case, especially Twitter – is how easily our shared meat-based existence becomes an intimate of our virtual social worlds. Some things, like the ill-begotten Weather Channel flurry naming system, register as powerful but brief blips on our trending topics ( #nemo ugh ). The light that burns twice as bright, and all that.

Other topics, such as the saga of the retiring Pope and his subsequent replacement, generate multiple trending topics and hash tags. They bounce in and out of our social existence periodically, making their presence known only when there is some new thing to report and discuss.

But still other things, like the Mars Curiosity Rover, have launched entire new communities around both the technology and the people who make up the program. At the South by Southwest shindig this week, @MarsCuriosity and its attached social phenomenon were awarded the Interactive Award for Best Social Media Campaign. Along with the Curiosity Twitter account, the social media team at NASA also engaged the Twitter audience directly with heavy campaigning around the landing of the Rover:

NASA Tweetup and NASA Social events added a “you are there” element to the campaign. Social media followers were randomly selected to go behind the scenes for launch and landing. They met with scientists and engineers, took pictures, asked questions and shared the experience via their own social media accounts, making them citizen journalists and ambassadors for the mission.

Is it amazing that a car-sized hunk of metal gets 1.3m followers and its own parody account ( @SarcasticRover ) with 100k followers of its own? Or does this phenomenon speak to the power of space exploration in our collective consciousness?

 

Just yesterday, we reported on NASA’s use of “Solar Grazing Comets” to study the magnetic field of our Sun. But today, I want to talk about another SGC that has a lot of people in the space community very, very excited.

No, it doesn’t look like much right now. But that’s because ISON is very far away from the Sun. Once it gets closer and the Sun’s heat begins to create the atmosphere around the comet that creates the glow and tail we all generally know comets to have, then we’re going to see something amazing. We will hopefully see a comet that outshines the moon for at least an evening or two.

Because astronomers believe that ISON’s composition is similar to that of a comet that passed in 1680 and was reported to have been as bright. How do they know what the composition of the comet from 1680 was? Well, I don’t have the foggiest notion, and neither do most of the reports I’m reading.

However, most comets including this one are believed to come from the Oort Cloud, a hypothesized haze of ice and rock nearly a lightyear away from our Sun and a quarter of the distance between our Sun and our nearest neighboring star, Alpha Centauri. It is believed to be composed of the last snowy bits of material that formed our solar system and exists at the hypothetical edge of our Sun’s gravitational pull.

Astronomers predict that ISON will make its presence known in the night sky around October of this year. The moon-dimming display depends on a couple of things, however. Since heating up a ball of space snow has about as much chance of breaking it apart in space as it would on Earth, there’s every chance that ISON may just fracture into a bunch of smaller comets. Secondly, the comet has to come close enough to the Sun to create a tail, but not so close that it just gets disintegrated altogether. The current estimate is that ISON will pass within 800,000 miles of the Sun. That’s about 100 times closer to the Sun than the Earth. Mercury, by contrast, is about 36,000,000 miles from the Sun.

One interesting and unique ripple in this story is the fact that our Mars Curiosity and Mars Orbiter should be in a position to give us close up views of ISON’s passage before we get good views here on Earth. Imagine that? Pictures of a comet passing another world, then seeing it pass ours.

As if last week’s landing of the rover Curiosity on Mars weren’t cool enough news on its own, that landing also contained an acknowledging nod towards our very own Rochester, NY.

Street cred? Nah, Man. Space cred – something Rochester apparently has had for quite some time, albeit, slightly under the radar.

When you think of cities rich in space technologies, you probably think of Houston or Cape Canaveral. But Rochester? 8 years ago during the summer of 2004, NASA and Xerox announced a technology partnership, formed to help NASA implement the then Vision for Space Exploration.  The Constellation Program ended with last summer’s final Endeavor launch, but space investigation is not dead – far from it.  Our Greater Rochester Area continues to be of help in space discovery – which brings us back to the Curiosity.

NASA’s Curiosity, a robotic rover now on the surface of Mars, carries a little piece of home with it.  A variety of optics manufactured by Optimax Systems Inc., a Wayne County optics firm, is used in the cameras that are attached to Curiosity’s remote sensing mass. Additionally, the rover is operating with image sensors manufactured by Truesense Imaging Inc. of Rochester. That’s 2 points for the home team!

It should come as no surprise, then, that one of New York’s three chapters of the National Space Society (the other two both hosted in the New York City area) calls Rochester home. This non-profit, grassroots organization dedicates itself to the creation of civilization in space and is widely touted as the preeminent citizen’s voice on space. Rochester’s NSS chapter is made up of local space enthusiasts who are all very passionate regarding the future of space travel and is extremely active in promoting space education throughout schools and exhibits at area events. Any member will adamantly confirm for you that although the space shuttle program has ended, space travel is only just beginning.

To learn more about NSS membership or their upcoming plans for space travel, check out their mission statement. Even if you never got to go to Space Camp like you dreamed of as a kid, the next best thing may just be in your backyard!

 

With new photos coming in every few days, you might think this could get boring. It won’t but you might think that.

The most amazing thing about the current batch of photos is just how well-documented the landing actually is. Several images reveal the Curiosity landing area and all its various parts, all predictably arranged on the surface. Enjoy:

The Curiosity rover is already paying dividends in amazing photography, as it has just beamed back a series of photos showing its descent to the Martian surface. The amazing sequence of snap shots includes a series of images of the heat shield that protected Curiosity for most of the descent falling away as the rover continues on with its mission. Even more amazing, NASA JPL put together a stop-motion video piecing together multiple shots into a single mesmerizing stop-motion animation of Curiosity’s descent which you can watch here.

The excitement at Curiosity’s safe landing on Mars was felt well beyond Mission Control last night, as directors, White House officials and science geeks of all varieties took to Twitter and press releases to express their enthusiasm.

The gold star for American rah-rah goes to White House Science Advisor John Holdren, who put it this way:

“And if anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of US leadership in space, well there is a one-ton automobile sized piece of American ingenuity that is sitting on the surface of Mars right now,”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden went even further:

Today, the wheels of Curiosity have begun to blaze the trail for human footprints on Mars. Curiosity, the most sophisticated rover ever built, is now on the surface of the Red Planet, where it will seek to answer age-old questions about whether life ever existed on Mars — or if the planet can sustain life in the future. This is an amazing achievement, made possible by a team of scientists and engineers from around the world and led by the extraordinary men and women of NASA and our Jet Propulsion Laboratory. President Obama has laid out a bold vision for sending humans to Mars in the mid-2030’s, and today’s landing marks a significant step toward achieving this goal.

And Scientist and television personality Neil Degrasse-Tyson went with a more Trekkie take:

Given the hammering he’s taken on Fox News and elsewhere over his (entirely sane, well-supported) opinions on global climate change, Bill Nye the Science Guy’s take is even more amusing:

While the official Mars Curiosity Twitter feed asked us something bigger:

President Obama’s remarks on the touch down read in part:

Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history. 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. It proves that even the longest of odds are no match for our unique blend of ingenuity and determination… I congratulate and thank all the men and women of NASA who made this remarkable accomplishment a reality – and I eagerly await what Curiosity has yet to discover.

Already, the mission is paying dividends, proving that the unique – read: right on the edge of wacky – design for the “Sky Crane” could do its job. By allowing the Rover to be set down in a precise location, the new lander paves the way for much more accurate landings and telemetry. The previous two landers were bounced across the surface of Mars in giant airbag cocoons.

Mission Control believes that the first real operations on the ground will take place sometime in September, after extensive diagnostics are performed. In the meanwhile, Curiosity stands at the foot of an enormous mountain in the middle of a crater the size of the San Fernando Valley, awaiting its next command.

Photo courtesy The Universe Facebook group.