Socializing on Mars

Jan 15, 2009
A montage showing an artist concept of the Mars Exploration Rovers along with social-networking sites.

(PhysOrg.com) -- After five groundbreaking years exploring the Red Planet, the communications engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory pretty much know what they are getting when another downlink from Spirit or Opportunity arrives. They know that with a typical transmission comes about 10 megabits of engineering data, another 4 megabits of science data, and around 26 megabits of images. They also realize that after the information is amassed and analyzed by the rovers' science teams that the most unique, scientifically exciting of that compiled data will be released via peer-reviewed papers, articles, science briefings and press releases.

To date, literally thousands of rover images have been analyzed and discussed in detail. But the rovers have sent back about a quarter-million images. NASA decided this incongruity could be best addressed by making every single Mars rover image available to all who were interested -- and had Internet access.

Access to all that imagery brought the thrill of exploration to people around the world in a way never envisioned before the rovers began to roam the Red Planet. Now, the Mars Exploration Rovers have new life on the likes of "Second Life," "YouTube," online forums like "Unmannedspaceflight.com," and the social networking site "Facebook."

Like the majority of college students today, Keri Bean knows the ins and outs of Facebook. But the Texas A&M student did her Earth-based socializing peers one planet better when she opened a page for the Mars Rovers. "If I had to chose, I would say I like Spirit better," said the 20 year-old meteorology major from College Station, Texas. "She's had to work for everything. Opportunity gets a major discovery handed to her by landing nearly on top of it, but Spirit's had to work hard for everything she gets."

Bean started her Mars Rovers Facebook page to keep a few of her friends in the loop on what's happening up there on the Red Planet. She populated it with rover information and updates when she could find time. To her surprise, the rovers' friends list began to grow well beyond her goal of "a few friends." Then one day, she got a new friend that changed everything.

"Steve Squyres, the scientist in charge of both of the rovers, messaged me and said he liked my site," said Bean. "I knew then I had to get serious."

Bean and the Mars Rovers now have almost 1,700 online friends from as far away as Norway and New Zealand. Her (or their, depending how you look at it), page includes links to interesting articles about the rovers, images, sometimes a heads-up about upcoming documentaries and even some first-person dialogue between Mars' roving twosome.

"I do not have a lot of time this semester, but I try to check it once a day," said Bean. "It is all about reaching out to people who would normally not pay attention."

If Bean's Facebook page is for those with short Martian attention spans, Doug Ellison of the United Kingdom has put together a Web site for those with an insatiable appetite. Ellison has been interested in the Red Planet ever since NASA/JPL's first scrappy Mars rover, Pathfinder, roved the Martian surface back in 1997.

"Mars grabbed me in an unhealthy way," quipped Ellison, the United Kingdom-based Web czar of unmannedspaceflight.com. "Just on the fringe of acceptable."

In those days, Ellison was reading everything he could on the journey of Pathfinder. Then, in February 2004, while Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity were still under factory warranty, and after his day job, Ellison used imaging software to "stitch" his first Mars panorama from a collection of raw images from the JPL Web site: (marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/gallery/all/).

Like Bean, Ellison had "no ambition or expectation" other than impressing himself and a few friends. But then a few more friends took an interest in his nascent Web site, and then a few more. Ellison's site -- unmannedspaceflight.com -- was slowly being colonized with people with a serious jonesing for all things deep in deep space exploration.

"Our membership includes a care worker for the elderly here in the U.K. to a teacher in North Wales to a government employee in California," said Ellison. "In London, I recently met for the first time someone I had known through the Web site for four years. There were no "getting to know you" pleasantries. Straight off the bat it was right into a detailed, in-depth, insightful discussion about something ridiculously space-geeky."

Online discussions of spacecraft and mission science are only a small part of unmannedspaceflight.com's allure to the truly space geeky. The majority of the site, and its appeal, is dedicated to those stark and beautiful and sometimes puzzling images coming down from Spirit and Opportunity each and every day.

"Our members share results from stitching together rover images and working with those images," said Ellison. "Say Opportunity does a long drive. We download those pictures from the rover Web site. Somebody will make a mosaic from the imagery taken at the end of the drive. Somebody else will keep the route map up to date to show where Opportunity has been. Somebody else will then stitch together the next mosaic and have the full mosaic all together and then keep track of what the following day's activities are going to be."

All this pro-bono, unofficial fine-tuning of rover imagery by the members of the unmannedspaceflight.com forum has been recognized by some very official members of the aerospace and science media. Their work has made the cover of Aviation Week and Space Technology and Spaceflight and even been featured in NASA's own "Astronomy Picture of the Day" Web site: antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ .

As proud as Ellison is of his site's contributions to promoting the rovers and their stories, he is just as proud about how they can band together to police some of the more inimitable Mars storylines. With over 1,700 forum contributors surfing the internet, Mars stories that seem a little -- or a lot -- out of whack, are quickly identified. Like the one where numerous major media outlets began discussing the possibility of a Martian Sasquatch making an unscheduled appearance in a Spirit image.

"We took the story and quickly ripped it apart just by using the facts," said Ellison. "Some members worked out how far the "Sasquatch" was from the rover when the image was taken and calculated it was about the size of a packet of cigarettes. One of our posters did a brilliant job of taking the mosaic that the image came from and demonstrating how so many of the rocks in it could appear to look like something else."

Of course, not all Mars rover imagery that makes its way into the public consciousness is meant to be taken seriously (we think). Like Madison Avenue's pitch for an adult beverage that puts a new angle on the search for life in our solar system -- available for viewing on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_iPvUWyzhE . Or a brace of commercials where both Mars rovers and their mission controllers meet their intellectual superiors on the Martian surface, also available for viewing on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvY9vMAMxc4 and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYzM1M1X790&feature=PlayList&p=74F444229EB256C3&playnext=1&index=98 . Or the hilarious "Mars: 2020: Springtime" where multiple aspiring Mars landers meet an ignominious fate, much to the chagrin of local residents.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

"Like any travel adventure, a big part of the fun is sharing the experience with family and friends back home," said John Callas, Mars Exploration Rover project manager at JPL. "For five years now, it has been very rewarding to see the fascination -- and the love -- for the rovers that runs deep and knows no international boundaries. And as many ways as we can find to share the experience of exploring Mars, we now know that many out in the general public will find even more ways to enrich the whole experience for everyone."

The story could end here, but this is about how those outside of NASA have managed to place Mars within their own sphere of influence. So in conclusion, the words of someone who took Mars and ran with it.

"People like me get to see a little bit of Mars that no one has ever seen before," said Ellison. "The downlink of the imagery from the rovers is an entirely automated process. So, it might be 2 a.m. in Pasadena (home of JPL) when images come down but it is lunchtime here. I can see the images before the scientists do. To be able to ride along every single day on that adventure, sometimes you have to kind of shake your head in disbelief that you are seeing something that nobody has ever seen before."

Provided by NASA/JPL

Explore further: Voyager map details Neptune's strange moon Triton

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Speckled beetle key to saving crops in Ethiopia

23 minutes ago

(Phys.org) —An invasive weed poses a serious and frightening threat to farming families in Ethiopia, but scientists from a Virginia Tech-led program have unleashed a new weapon in the fight against hunger: ...

New tool to assess noise impact on marine mammals

33 minutes ago

A new desktop tool which will allow offshore renewable energy developers to assess the likely impacts of their projects on marine mammal populations has been developed by scientists at the University of St ...

How much do we really know about privacy on Facebook?

33 minutes ago

The recent furore about the Facebook Messenger app has unearthed an interesting question: how far are we willing to allow our privacy to be pushed for our social connections? In the case of the Facebook ...

A glimpse at the rings that make cell division possible

33 minutes ago

Forming like a blown smoke ring does, a "contractile ring" similar to a tiny muscle pinches yeast cells in two. The division of cells makes life possible, but the actual mechanics of this fundamental process ...

Philippines makes arrests in online extortion ring

36 minutes ago

Philippine police have arrested eight suspected members of an online syndicate accused of blackmailing more than 1,000 Hong Kong and Singapore residents after luring them into exposing themselves in front of webcam, an official ...

Recommended for you

Voyager map details Neptune's strange moon Triton

1 hour ago

(Phys.org) —NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft gave humanity its first close-up look at Neptune and its moon Triton in the summer of 1989. Like an old film, Voyager's historic footage of Triton has been "restored" ...

How the sun caused an aurora this week

2 hours ago

On the evening of Aug. 20, 2014, the International Space Station was flying past North America when it flew over the dazzling, green blue lights of an aurora. On board, astronaut Reid Wiseman captured this ...

NKorea launch pad expansion 'nearing completion'

13 hours ago

A U.S. research institute says construction to upgrade North Korea's main rocket launch pad should be completed by fall, allowing Pyongyang (pyuhng-yahng) to conduct a launch by year's end if it decides to do so.

Mars, Saturn and the claws of Scorpius

19 hours ago

Look up at the night sky this week and you'll find Mars and Saturn together in the west. Mars stands out with its reddish colouring and you might just be able to detect a faint yellow tinge to Saturn. ...

User comments : 0