Nasa's Mars lander has a Twitter feed; big science and astronomy may soon follow suit. Plus, the genomics of schizophrenia and shitby Philip Ball / July 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
Twittering from Mars
Visitors to the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire typically take one look at the gigantic dishes of the radio telescopes and ask the same question: what is it looking at? But it’s not just outsiders who wonder that. Astronomers who have been granted viewing time to look at their favourite objects at the big observatories also want quick notification of when the telescopes have done the job. This is just the sort of question for which the micro-blogging service Twitter was invented. And so radio astronomer Stuart Lowe at Jodrell Bank proposes that the astronomy community set up an AstroTwitter service dedicated to letting followers know in real time what the world’s telescopes are up to.
A service like this has already been created for Nasa’s Mars Phoenix lander, which had 3,000 followers by the time Phoenix touched down on Mars in May 2008. By September it had 35,000. Phoenix is studying the composition of the Martian “soil,” particularly to look for clues about the planet’s suspected watery (and perhaps habitable) past. It’s arguable that Nasa’s decision to write the feeds in the first person (“I’m on M-AAAAARS! Now it’s back to work digging for treasure…”) is over-egging the cuteness, but as a public outreach tool the Phoenix Twitter feed was a triumph. Inspired by this, Lowe fantasises about online mash-ups that show the locations of all the world’s telescopes, each linked to its own Twitter stream. And using the recently launched Google Sky, we could see what’s in the telescope’s sights too. No doubt all the big-science installations will be at it soon.
A prime candidate for a service like this would be Spirit, the Mars rover currently stuck in deep sand on the Martian surface. Nasa has set up a website, “Free Spirit,” to provide updates on efforts to get the rover out of the sandpit in which it has been trapped since May. This has involved making a mock-up in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, lodging a replica of Spirit in a sand tray and trying out escape manoeuvres. A rock revealed by Spirit’s cameras under its “belly” offers hope of finding purchase. Without the earthbound tests, the scientists fear that any attempted move might just dig the rover in deeper.
Spirit and its companion Opportunity have become the Wall·Es of Mars, anthropomorphised to the extent that ending the rover missions would…