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1Feb 2013

UPDATED* Is public watching as Curiosity roves Mars? No, and yes. Maybe news media output is not the barometer to check.

UPDATED*  Is public watching as Curiosity roves Mars? No, and yes. Maybe news media output is not the barometer to check.

   Yesterday I noticed a burble of news coverage on the NASA Mars Rover Curiosity as it prepares to drill for the first time into a rock to see what it's made of - roundup below but not quite yet.

    Drilling was supposed to have begun as early as today but so far not much coverage of the actual event. NASA says any day now. But the event prompts thought of an issue in Mars news. It does seem - without checking, an important qualification of the oncoming opinion - that media coverage for Curiosity has been far short of what the smaller, twin Rovers Spirit and Opportunity received after their arrival on Mars nine years ago. Specialty outlets such as pay steady attention to the newer, better, and atomic energy powered machine, but not so much the big wire services, big newspapers, BBC and Wired and Grist and Scientific American and other general-purpose science news outlets.

  I've queried the Jet Propulsion Lab news office guy, that guy being Guy Webster, for any data the web people or others there have that compare the hits from the public on Curiosity web pages compared to the previous rover mission. If he has something this post will get an update. But in the meantime here is a spot of news that suggests it will be a hard comparison to make rigorously:

  • 2012 Crunchies - Matt Burns: Mars Curiosity Wins The 2012 Crunchie For "Best Technology Achievement" ; Crunchies are tech/venture capital/gee whiz Silicon Valley/geek-a-rama awards for people working to bring the future closer to now.  A mission control ace nicknamed "Mohawk Man" for his magnetic manner and haircut during the landing picked up the trophy on stage.

   The story is lively and short, a good combo for the net. Burns mentions that among her sterling tech-forward assets including some very sophisiticated analysis instruments and the landing sequence that already got a top science prize from Science Magazine no less, is that Curiosity is big on social media. Old girls Spirit and Opportunity didn't need no tweets. Their engineers hadn't even heard of such things. Didn't exist back then. Curiosity's handlers however are a net-savvy bunch.

   Burns mentions that Curiosity has 1.2 million twitter followers, 483,000 likes on Facebook, and if I get the total number os tweets so far I'll let tracker readers know. Old media coverage is down compared to the previous pair, but then old media is a shell of its old self. The upshot is that one might well expect this rover to inspire less public interest - after all there were two of them last time, they were more novel, and over the course of their long lifetimes (Opportunity is still running) ran into far more dramatic situations and perils than Curiosity might encounter. And encounter with what look like water-influenced outcrops is no longer news.  But by how much, to this point, Curiosity's profile is lower is impossible to say. If it finds something truly surprising the mission's newsmaking power could exceed anything from Mars so far. We'll see....

   One more geek-rich news story to share on Curiosity, one that might be another sign that the new rover is penetratng cutt9ing edge popular culture in ways that the previous two did not:

  • Macworld/iWorld - Clint Demeritt: How the Mars Curiosity rover stacks up against the iPhone 5 ; On raw specs, like memory and processor speed, the phone is the winner. Of course. Curiosity's innards were locked in a lot farther ago in the charts of Moore's Law and its growth. But, as it says here, Curiosity has a blaster of a laser and a seven-foot arm. It's also more durable. Try leaving your iPhone on Mars through the winter and check the number of bars on the display in the spring.

Back to recent Mars Curiosity news media accounts:

*UPDATE - Adam Mann sent us a most informative and thoughtful email, for which he provided permission to post as a comment.

  • The Economist - Mars rovers/ Man in the machine ; A post on the magazine's (unbylined, as is its practice) Babbage blog takes an enterprising look at how the machine's operators and engineers learned to use the rover's arm as nearly as possible as dextrously as a human might use his or her own arm in the same circumstance (along with how to maneuver its wheels, turret, etc.) Readers get a fairly deep dive into tele-robotics.
  • - Mars Rover Curiosity's Photos: Septembers to November, 2012. This just went up, even though not entirely on new material. Many of the photos are striking indeed. I like #20 - Rover gets itself in foreground, its tracks at mid-distance, and a mountain (Mt. Sharp, its prime mission destination, I believe) in the beyond.
  • - Mike Wall: Curiosity Rover to Drill Mars Rock Once Soaked by Water ; Read this for some calm prose on what exactly the rover is up to right now as it gears up to drill.
  • Atlantic - Rebecca J. Rosen: A Surprisingly Beautiful Photo of Mars at Night, Courtesy of NASA's Curiosity Rover ; Another on the spooky UV pic of a drillable rock, as in the Wired piece above but with more goggle in the prose.

In the meantime dept:

Grist for the Mill: NASA-JPL Press Release



Posted for Adam Mann
Hey Charlie,
Nice article about Mars coverage regarding the rover. I think I ended up clicking on and reading all the links in the piece. I'm just a young journalist so wasn't around to follow exactly how much coverage the previous rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, got. But I would say Curiosity gets pretty well covered, each and every step of the way. 
The big wire services and newspapers have been there. Wired has been paying steady attention to the rover. I've written somewhere in the ballpark of 70 articles about it since it landed back in August (which works out to something like 1 article every 3 days on average). Alan Boyle over at MSNBC is also a constant Curiosity watcher, same for Irene Klotz at Reuters. Emily Lakdwalla for the Planetary Society has a blog post about the rover every other day or so (don't know if you count her since she works for an advocacy group). The rover is constantly talked about on twitter amongst journalists and I see plenty of coverage from all over the web.  
But I will tell you one thing we've noticed in recent months. Right after the rover landed, we couldn't write enough articles about it. It felt like I could have pumped out 10 articles about Curiosity every day during August and September and they would have each gotten record page-views. Readership on the rover kept going strong for a few months after that and just about anything I published with the word Curiosity in the hed did great. But I think the public interest has started to wane, at least just a little. Curiosity articles don't do the blockbuster traffic they once did and so I have less incentive to cover every single track it makes. I've been waiting for the word from NASA that the rover actually drilled a rock before writing a new article about it. 
The last big story regarding Curiosity happened after John Grotzinger told Joe Palca that he has some "historic" news. Curiosity-related traffic soared again during that time. So my assessment is that the public is a bit tired of hearing that the rover booted up a new instrument but will tune right back in as soon as the science team has something to say about habitability or life on Mars. 
PS. I'm actually a staff writer at Wired. Reading your piece, I realized that my profile was out of date. Thanks.


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