Curiosity Lands On Mars, Twitter Explodes, NASA Parties Like It’s 2001?

At 10:32 p.m. PST on Sunday night, NASA’s robotic space rover, “Curiosity,” touched down on the surface of the Red Planet — in the “Gale Crater” for those keeping track. The landing was a landmark event — the culmination of eight months of space travel (Curiosity launched on November 26, 2011) and some $2.5 billion. While the mere feat of surviving a trip through space (35 million+ miles) and a seven-minute atmospheric entry (which was totally automated, by the way, and required the craft to decelerate from 13,000 MPH) is impressive enough, the show is just getting started.

The Mini Cooper-sized rover, which is the largest envoy of its kind to be sent to Mars, will spend nearly two years roaming the surface of Mars, collecting data and photographs — all in service of better understanding the origins of the planet, determining its habitability, and perhaps setting the stage for future, manned missions to our red neighbor.

Chris wrote a great post last night making the case for why we should care about Curiosity, which had to compete for attention last night with the Olympics, among other things, not to mention NASA’s spotty track record when it comes to Mars. As Reuters pointed out, 26 out of 40 Mars missions have met with setbacks and/or failure.

While those of us who’ve been weaned on Star Wars, Star Trek, and all things J.J. Abrams may relish the opportunity to follow these voyages into the unknown, NASA itself has struggled to maintain its fanbase. The organization has been running out of money, and it’s in dire need of funding to ensure that these types of voyages continue to happen.

Last night brought some hope in that regard. Considering the fact that it’s willing to look for life in corners of red deserts, NASA might want to consider turning to crowdfunding for future missions, as the surprising popularity of the hashtag “#fundNASA” on Twitter last night showed that many appear willing to shell out a few dollars should NASA end with a Kickstarter page. After all, as Ingrid (and others on Twitter) pointed out, it apparently cost London over five times as much money to put on these Olympics as it did to get Curiosity on to Mars.

Be that as it may, it seems that NASA and its scientists have already learned quite a bit about how to handle the dissemination of information in the Twitter & Facebook era. NASA livestreamed the entire event from Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, and the rover itself has been live-tweeting from landing to its first transmissions on its own Twitter feed. Within 15 minutes of landing, Curiosity (really, whichever NASA geeks are behind its feed) were already capitalizing on the “Pics or it didn’t happen” meme to share its very first pic from the surface of Mars. (Pic to the right.)

What’s more, Bobak Ferdowsi, Curiosity’s Flight Director, became the star of the landing last night. The flight director began the night with less than 200 followers on Twitter and now has over 14,000. His mohawk, in fact, has already spawned a meme. Ferdowsi’s rise to brief stardom last night was just one example of Twitter’s explosion last night with Curiosity-related chatter.

One of the highlights of the evening, though, was getting to see Mission Control celebrate the successful landing of Curiosity — not since Apple’s last keynote have so many nerds expressed so much joy.

And speaking of Apple, some were quick to point out last night on Twitter that many of the NASA scientists gathered in Mission Control were working on MacBook Pros. Invaluable product placement, to be sure.

Of course, one tipster, Eran Savir, also noticed that NASA may be working with some more outdated technology, capturing images from NASA’s livestream that seem to indicate an ongoing (and perhaps outdated) love affair with … Windows XP?!

Of course, just to show that NASA is still in touch with the modern communication tools that are currently en vogue — if live tweeting didn’t cement that already — here’s another still from NASA’s Ustream that appears to show Mission Controllers taking a break from, you know, landing and manoeuvering a multi-billion-dollar craft to catch up on some Facebook status updates. What else?

And just to give you further evidence of the fact that people actually got excited about Curiosity’s landing last night, Ustream tells us that, with broadcasts spanning NASA HDTV, NASA JPL and NASA JPL 2, over 3.2M people tuned into the Mars Landing, “making it perhaps one of the most significant news events that has been followed via live webcasts.” Of course, they would say that. 500K peak concurrent viewers across all streams tuned in live and over 102K social stream messages were sent.

After all the partying and Facebook updating finally quiets down this morning, the reality sinks in that it’s still going to be at least a week before Curiosity will have all of its high-tech tools and cameras in working order. Then its two-year mission to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet begins.

For good measure, here’s a look at the first high-res image Curiosity relayed back to Earth on Monday morning:

More on Curiosity and the Mars Science Laboratory Project here.