This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover along with an illustrated astronaut bird.
"I'm in good health & on course for landing. Countdown to Mars: 3 days!," said NASA's Curiosity Rover on Twitter.
Okay, so the rover is not really tweeting from space. The voice of Curiosity is the combined effort of three women, led by NASA's social media manager Veronica McGregor, who told TechNewsDaily that they work as a "hivemind" to communicate on behalf of the rover. All three refer to Curiosity as "she."
The social media team brought Curiosity to Twitter on Nov. 19, 2008, three years before her launch on Nov. 26, 2011.
"I'm WAY cool, nearly built, and I need a name," the rover "said" in her first tweet. NASA launched the rover's naming contest on Twitter, as an essay contest for kids. In the spring of 2009, 12-year-old Clara Ma's suggestion, "Curiosity," was chosen from more than 9,000 entries.
Giving Machines a Voice
Tweeting in the "voice" of a robot gives personality and a sense of connection that's made all of NASA's recent missions engaging to a new generation of space enthusiasts. Even a kindergartener can understand the importance of discovering water on Mars, as McGregor tweeted on behalf of Curiosity's predecessor, the Phoenix Lander, on July 31, 2008:
"An ice-containing sample made it into the TEGA oven. I can now say I'm the first mission to Mars to touch and then *taste* the water."
It's these first-person tweets that connect with followers, but it all began as a quick fix to stay within Twitter's 140-character limit. McGregor found she could save letters by substituting "I traveled" for phrases like "the spacecraft has traveled." In the past four years, McGregor and her team have come up with strategies to make NASA's machines more likeable as well.
"Obscure pop culture references, song lyrics and some of the corniest jokes imaginable are just a few ways that we've transformed Curiosity from an inanimate piece of metal into a lovable rover with a life of her own," teammate Courtney O'Connor said.
Rover Curiosity has more than 137,000 followers on Twitter, a figure that is expected to grow as touchdown approaches.
Prepare for landing
At 2,000 pounds and the size of a Mini Cooper, Curiosity is the largest and heaviest vehicle ever sent to the Red Planet. Her lighter predecessors used supersonic parachutes to slow their descent. The $2.5-billion Curiosity will need not only a parachute, but a newly developed Sky Crane that will lower her into the planet's Gale Crater, cut the cables and then fly off, leaving Curiosity upright on its six wheels — if all goes according to plan. The unorthodox landing has been dubbed the "7 Minutes of Terror" for its duration from the top of the atmosphere to the ground.
The social media team is ready. "I try to put myself into the mindset of the rover, if that's possible, and tweet from that perspective," McGregor said. "I also look to the scientists and engineers behind this project and add their hopes and fears into the personality."
So what is Curiosity feeling as the big moment approaches? "Right now, the rover is feeling a mix of euphoria, excitement, fear and, yes, a lot of butterflies," said McGregor.
The third woman in the group feels a special bond with Curiosity. "She's the newest member of the Mars rover family, and I'm the newest member of this team," Stephanie Smith said. She's following Curiosity's lead — both have a job to do and must take it one step at a time. "I probably won't get to rappel out of a jet pack on Sunday night," she said. "But if that were called for, I'd do it."
The landing is scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 5 at 10:31 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time. NASA's webcast of the Mars Curiosity landing will begin at 8:30 p.m. PDT on NASA TV. And don't forget to follow @MarsCuriosity on Twitter for a heroic "first-person" tale.