Breaking News Emails
When the Philae lander finally landed on a comet more than 300 million miles from Earth, it sent back a photo that was retweeted more than 15,000 times.
Yes, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) does send out news releases and hold press conferences. But it's @Philae2014, the Philae lander's Twitter account, that has established an emotional connection with the more than 316,000 people who follow it.
The people behind the account are Karin Ranero Celius, the English language editor for DLR Magazine, and Koen Geurts, technical project manager for the Philae lander. Seeing as Geurts has been a bit busy lately in the control center, Celius has taken the helm of @Philae2014 in crunch time. She talked to NBC News about what it's like to tweet for one of the world's most famous machines.
The Philae lander took around 1.4 billion euros ($1.8 billion) to build and 10 years to reach its destination. How do you keep the tone fun and lighthearted when there is so much on the line?
It's a true talent. [Laughs] Of course we try to get the information directly from the lander control center. It's just kind of putting yourself in the role — especially since the touchdown — of the lander. You become the lander, in a way. The whole team, we ask ourselves, "What would the lander say? What would we say if we were on the comet?"
For that, you do need to be able to talk to the lander people and understand how the lander and its instruments works. You need to understand science in order to be Philae.
What do imagine the Philae lander's personality to be like?
We consider him a "He." He is a fearless explorer, jumping off a spacecraft and onto somewhere that nobody has even been to. He is fearless and curious.
How much effort goes into every tweet?
In these critical times, during the landing, I contact the people who are actually in the lander control center by email, and I ask them, "Has this happened? Can I say this?" We want it to be live — we don't schedule anything, but we also want it to be 100 percent accurate. It takes a couple of minutes.
Do you get nervous when you hit the "Tweet" button?
Oh, yes. [Laughs] I check the tweet to make sure its OK. I check it 10 times or more.
Can I ask you about this dramatic photo of Philae approaching the comet from the Rosetta spacecraft? What does it feel like knowing that you are going to unveil something like this to hundreds of thousands of people?
It was amazing. At the control center, we were looking at images that nobody had ever seen before. It's something completely new from unexplored terrain. Nobody knew what it would look like, and we were the first ones to see it. It's hard to describe.
Was the Philae account inspired by Curiosity Rover's popular Twitter feed?
Yeah, definitely. What helped with our account was the Rosetta account. The Rosetta voice was inspired by Curiosity, because it's an amazing way to get people to learn about science in real time. You definitely see the impact that Curiosity has had on people, and it's like, "Why not do it?" It works.
Why is it important that Philae have a Twitter account?
It's the first time anybody has achieved what Philae has achieved. Philae's Twitter account is able to explain things in a simple way. People should know what's going on. It's taxpayers' money, we are going to space, we are achieving something that is going to change science and change what we know about comets and the origins of the solar system.
This is a way to reach at least the 300,000 people who are following us. Also, Twitter users also use other social media, so the message propagates through Facebook, Google+ and other ways.
How did you end up with this job anyway?
It was recently. The Philae account was actually started by the lander control center team a few years ago and it was passed on from technical project manager to technical project manager. I just started doing it in May, because I'm the native English speaker for DLR communications, and I have a science background and I take care of English social media for them.
Do you have your own Twitter account?
I do, but I don't really use it. My first tweet was looking for a pair of glasses I lost at a TweetUp event that I attended as @DLR_en.
So are you happy to be the voice of Philae?
It feels nice. It's a lot of pressure now. In a way, we expected people would be engaged, but we didn't expect this much attention.