The week of May 17, 2015

How we learned to love anthropomorphic space probes

By Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Asked to name a famous astronaut, you’ll probably look back to the heyday of the space race: Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Yuri Gagarin, Sally Ride. At a pinch, you might choose Chris Hadfield, the much-loved Canadian astronaut who returned from his final ISS mission in 2013.

It’s easy to characterize Aldrin and Armstrong as heroic figures. But 40-odd years after the moon landing, Hadfield became famous not for a groundbreaking discovery but for his amiable presence on Twitter and YouTube. Like many astronauts, he became a public science educator, an ambassador for the joys of space exploration.

But while the ISS astronauts can be the public face of life aboard an orbiting space station, our more perilous long-distance missions are performed by unmanned robot probes. Needless to say, they are considerably less compelling than Hadfield and his zero-gravity covers of David Bowie songs. So how do you get people to emotionally engage with a 2,000-pound mass of wheels, drills, and telemetry instruments?

Each of NASA’s Mars rovers has a personal Twitter account, with a social media team posting updates and personal messages—in character. “YES!” tweeted Curiosity on March 24, 2015. “I found NO3! Biologically-useful nitrogen, that is. Another sign ancient Mars=habitable.”

It’s easy to picture Curiosity in the mold of Pixar’s Wall-E, a plucky young robot trundling along the unexplored surface of Mars. In fact, you don’t even need to picture it. The popular webcomic XKCD has already published comic strips starring Spirit, Curiosity, and Opportunity, echoing the innocent, enthusiastic tone that NASA’s social media team would later adopt. Space probe Twitter has become such a well-known genre that it’s inspired numerous parody accounts, including @SarcasticRover and its 130,000 followers.

“I think people really like to hear the conversations between the Rosetta and the Philae accounts.”

Most of these robot probe accounts belong to NASA, which employs a 150-strong social media team. NASA has decades of experience in honing its audience, but space agencies like the European Space Agency (ESA) and the India Space Research Organization are quickly catching up. So too are private ventures like SpaceX (which helpfully posts Vine clips of its own shuttle test mishaps) and Mars One, whose appearance of success was built on the existing online community of space enthusiasts.

For now, no one could describe SpaceX’s Twitter feed as cute. With exciting rocket launches taking place right here on Earth, it doesn’t need to give itself a lovable Internet persona to grab people’s attention. Compare that to China’s Yutu (“Jade Rabbit”) rover, which landed on the moon in December 2013. When it ran into trouble, many people found out via this message from an unofficial account on Sina Weibo:

“Although I should’ve gone to bed this morning, my masters discovered something abnormal with my mechanical control system. My masters are staying up all night working for a solution. I heard their eyes are looking more like my red rabbit eyes.”

While the demise of a manned spacecraft would be a horrifying tragedy, the anthropomorphized “death” of a robot probe is more like the end of a satisfying but melancholy TV show. It’s sad, but it’s the kind of sad that many people will follow avidly online. Social media provided a convenient way to take what is technically just a data-gathering tool and turn it into something with a soul. In Yutu’s case, the soul of a sleepy rabbit.

One recent success story was ESA’s Rosetta probe, which traveled for 10 years to land on a comet—the first mission of its kind. Before the landing in 2014, most Americans hadn’t even heard of ESA. Even if they had, they certainly didn’t have much interest in an unmanned spacecraft landing on a barren, frozen comet named 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. But thanks to ESA’s bite-sized social media updates, cool comet photos, and livestreamed broadcasts, Rosetta and its landing probe Philae became world news. They even warranted a 24-hour micro-scandal after one of the ESA techs was spotted wearing a sexist shirt on the video stream. If your fashion choices can inspire multiple think pieces overnight, you’ve definitely arrived.

This sudden rush of attention did not come by accident. ESA had been planning its social media push for months, beginning when Rosetta “woke up” from its 31-month hibernation period in January 2014.

“For wake-up we had the obvious connection with what everyone does in the morning: getting out of bed,” says Dr. Emily Baldwin, ESA’s space science editor. “We invited people to take part in a competition called Wake Up Rosetta, where we asked people to make videos of themselves shouting ‘Wake up, Rosetta!’ in various creative ways.” Then came the first in a series of Rosetta cartoons, characterizing the probe as a smiley gray cube giving Philae a piggyback ride to the comet.

ESA’s social media team made sure that Rosetta’s Twitter account “reflected as closely as possible the real activities of the spacecraft. So when it was asleep, the account was also sleeping.” The cartoons, originally aimed at kids, helped give Rosetta and Philae a cute, relatable face. Luckily it doesn’t take much to get people to empathize with a robotputting some googly eyes on a roomba will do it, in fact—and that did the trick.

ESA invited Rosetta’s growing audience to tweet #WakeUpRosetta as it awaited Rosetta’s first new message from across the void. Rosetta would wake up, begin to take readings and transmit to the European Space Operations Center in Germany, before making its way into orbit around comet 67P. From there, Philae would detach from Rosetta and slowly travel to the comet’s surface, anchoring itself and drilling down to take readings. To make this relatively dry series of tasks more exciting and personal, ESA’s Twitter accounts and control room livestreams went into action.

Philae’s own Twitter account proved useful when it came time to detach and land on the comet. The mission was successful, but Philae bounced off the surface without anchoring in, finding its final resting place in the shadow of a rocky outcrop. With very little sunlight to power its solar panels, Philae had only a few days left before it fell into hibernation mode. Instead of continuing to send chatty messages between the two spacecraft, ESA had to start drafting Philae’s farewell tweets.

Space agency Twitter isn’t trying to sell you anything; it just wants you to get excited about astrophysics and robotics and Martian geology.

“I think people really like to hear the conversations between the Rosetta and the Philae accounts,” says Baldwin, describing the probes as “two great friends on an adventure.”

The landing mishap provided a jolt of unexpected drama, as one of the two friends could no longer continue their shared journey. “It was the unique nature of these two Twitter accounts exchanging farewell messages, exchanging photos, particularly during the week of the comet landing, that really captured people’s hearts,” she says.

@ESA_Rosetta is managed by Baldwin’s space science communications team in the Netherlands, while Philae’s account is run by her colleagues at the German Aerospace Center, adding a little to the realism of the conversation between the two accounts. “We’re in close contact all the time,” says Baldwin, “so during the course of 2014 we would discuss some of the key moments of the mission and maybe work out a rough storyboard of things we wanted to say.”

Philae’s hibernation, though, forced them into some dramatic improvisation.

Philae spent two days sending data back to Earth and attempting to rotate into a better position for the sunlight. Then on Nov. 15, it sent its last tweet to Rosetta—for now, anyway.

According to Baldwin, people still tweet the Rosetta accounts every day, asking if Philae is likely to wake up soon. “It’s really nice to see that after quite a long time in social media, six months, people are still interested in the welfare of the lander and addressing it in the first person,” she says.

Most corporate social media feeds can only dream of this level of interest—which is kind of the point. Space agency Twitter isn’t trying to sell you anything; it just wants you to get excited about astrophysics and robotics and Martian geology. Curiosity and Rosetta and their friends can all just merge seamlessly into the rest of your social media feed, allowing unprecedented and casual access to worlds we can never hope to visit in real life.

Illustration by J. Longo