But first-person—or rather, first-spacecraft—tweeting as a lonely, wandering machine isn't easy. What personality does a rover have, anyway? It turns out, when it comes to space-bound robotic personas, people want some combination of personality and information. Followers need a balanced diet of tweets offering both regular, detailed updates and a relatable character.
From their offices in Pasadena, California, the three members of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory's social media team—news and social media manager Veronica McGregor and social media specialists Courtney O'Connor and Stephanie L. Smith—have spent years calibrating that balance.
McGregor began tweeting in May 2008 after creating an account for the Phoenix Lander using the handle @MarsPhoenix. Constrained to 140 characters per tweet, she discovered using first person not only saved space, but also attracted more replies from the account's followers.
"People started talking," she said. "The first person robot is what breaks the ice and gets people feeling like there's a conversation going on."
She and her team quickly developed a strategy and tone for the spacecraft. Given its short lifespan—the mission ended November 2008, roughly five months after it reached the Martian surface—McGregor emphasized an upbeat voice (complete with emoticons!), even when it came time to say goodbye.
The five-month "experiment" catalyzed the creation of the team's next accounts, including @MarsCuriosity, and developed a clear model: a mix of interaction, current event humor, and intelligent updates that could please everyone from amateurs to experts.
As long as all three team members agree on a tweet, it passes. "It all gets filtered through our relationship in the hive mind," Smith said. "We can yell to each other from our desks, and as news is coming out from the mission and we see something trend on Facebook or Twitter, and one of us has an idea of how we could communicate that, we're going to bounce it off from each other."
That voice is crucial to each account's identity. Curiosity, for example, is confident and unabashed, thanks to its physical qualities. (The rover is the size of a Humvee, weighs nearly 2000 pounds, and sports 17 cameras.) The Voyager account, on the other hand, represents two relics of the 1970s, so the tweets often reference history while inserting a dash of wanderlust. Voyager 1, after all, is carrying the golden record explaining human existence into deep space.
These days, it's not just the team in Pasadena carrying out conversations as spacecrafts with their followers. What started as a singular NASA-driven goal has turned global: The European Space Agency launched an account in 2011 for its Rosetta space probe, @ESA_Rosetta, with a similar first-person approach. The Indian Space Research Organization did the same when it took the handle @MarsOrbiter for its first mission to the planet, dubbed the Mars Orbiter Mission, or MOM, earlier this year.