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Mars lander is a Web star
MarsPhoenix's Twitterings sound as if they're coming direct from the Red Planet.

You've been put on notice, Stephen Colbert! NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander is hot on your heels in the online celebrity race. Just a few days after Sunday's touchdown in the Red Planet's north polar region, NASA's MarsPhoenix has attracted almost 10,000 Twitter fans, rivaling the Web-savvy comedian's legions on Twitterholic's leader board.

For those who are not yet tweeting, Twitter is a service that allow you to send and receive short text messages tailor-made for cell phones and other mobile devices. Many of its users think it's the greatest thing since ... well, since Facebook. Alpha-geek blogger Robert Scoble, for example, recently rhapsodized over how Twitter's legions kept tabs on this month's earthquake in China.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory latched onto Twitter long before the landing, when the public-affairs team was looking at ways to get the word out about Phoenix's progress.

"We do podcasts, we have a YouTube channel, and we recently started doing blogs," Veronica McGregor, JPL's media relations manager, told me today. "So we were discussing what we were going to do, and one of the newer members of the staff said, 'Why don't we try Twitter?'"

Perfect for the holiday

McGregor said the idea was perfect for Phoenix's landing, which was scheduled smack-dab in the middle of the Memorial Day weekend. Lots of folks would likely be away from their computers, but Twitter could help them follow the mission over their cell phones while they were at the backyard barbecue.

The first-person Twitterings gave Phoenix a personality all its own (his own? her own?). For example, during the preparations for landing, Phoenix told its fans that "my propellants have to be pressurized," and referred to the signal-relaying Mars Odyssey orbiter as "my buddy."

Any Twitter user can click on a button to start following the messages sent by any other user. On May 13, MarsPhoenix had 284 followers. On landing day, less than two weeks later, that number stood at 3,052.

McGregor thought that would be the end of the story. "We didn't really give any thought to what we were going to do after the landing," she said.

But Phoenix's rise was just beginning. On Memorial Day - the day after landing - the number of followers nearly doubled.

McGregor recalled that she had her Twitter service set up to give her an e-mail notification whenever MarsPhoenix gained a new follower. One day she went out to get a sandwich, and when she walked back to her desk, "my computer was ringing like a slot machine." By the time she disabled the notifications, more than 1,000 messages had flooded in.

Phoenix's agent

Although McGregor handles the Twitterings (as well as JPL's Facebook page), she prefers to think of herself as MarsPhoenix's earthbound agent. One of the beauties of the system is that she can forward questions from the tweeting crowd to the Phoenix mission team, and then post the answers from the experts. Prime time for message traffic is around midnight - especially now, when the main shift for Phoenix's mission operations is overnight.

That back-and-forth gave a big boost to the number of followers after the landing. "When people saw that Phoenix was answering their questions, it just got crazy," McGregor said.  

As of this writing, MarsPhoenix's followers number 9,329, putting MarsPhoenix at No. 30 on Twitterholic's Top 100 list.

Stephen Colbert, who capitalized on the social-networking trend himself when he sponsored a leatherback in the Great Turtle Race, currently ranks No. 26 with 10,524 followers. (Colbert was also behind one of the funniest pranks ever perpetrated on Wikipedia, and a hilarious Web video contest as well.)

NASA Watch's Keith Cowing says the space agency should be making more of a fuss over Phoenix's Twitter presence, but McGregor said she'll stick with the viral approach for now. "This is a Twitter audience," she told me. "I'm going to keep it pure and simple."

Phoenix's future

Phoenix may not reach the heady heights of the very top Twitter personalities (such as Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who has more than 34,000 followers and is third on Twitterholic's list). But JPL's Twitter experiment isn't really about the celebrity race. McGregor said she'll keep it going "as long as people keep asking those questions."

This latest Mars lander isn't designed to last as long as the twin Mars rovers - which are still at work in the planet's warmer climes, more than four years after they touched down. Phoenix could fade next week, or perhaps in three months, or perhaps next year when the north polar region goes into its deepest freeze.

Whenever the end comes, it will be up to McGregor and her colleagues to craft a farewell message to the lander's legions of followers ... in 140 characters or less.

"That'll be a tough one," she said.

How would you sum up Phoenix's mission so far in 140 characters? Feel free to chirp away below, or tune into Cosmic Log's tweets.

Update for 5:30 p.m. ET May 31: On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog - or a Digg-fueled faux Colbert. One of the commenters notes below that StephenColbert's Twitter account has been outed as ... gasp ... not associated with the real Stephen Colbert or Comedy Central. Here's an explanation purportedly posted by the fake Colbert. Thus, StephenColbert's Twitterholic ranking isn't the truest measure of the Colbert Nation's potential pull. That doesn't take anything away from MarsPhoenix's impressive showing in the Twitterverse, however.