Writer and photographer Charles Smith takes a look at how NASA looks to presents its images to the world, grappling with new formats and seeking to gain a new audience through its’ social media channels.
On the 14th July, 2015 NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft performed its historic flyby of the dwarf planet Pluto. The agency posted the first, and most iconic, image from the mission on Instagram. Mainstream media agencies held off publishing the story until they were in possession of a high definition version of the image, which was uploaded onto the NASA website several hours after the initial Instagram release. This marked a shift in the way in which NASA delivers news of its missions and is an acknowledgement of the importance of social media in delivering information to the public by the agency.
NASA gained over 300,000 new followers to its Instagram in the hours after uploading the image. Helping to fulfil the agencies remit to reach as wide an audience as possible, a part of their mandate since 1958, social media is increasingly playing a major part in delivering their message, and garnering support and funding for its further exploration of the cosmos.
Since 2009, under the stewardship of its social media manager, John Yembrick, NASA has focused its social media strategy, making it an integral part of each mission by sharing information and promoting its vision for further exploration in the future. For the New Horizon flyby alone, Yembrick and his team spent three months planning and liaising with the New Horizon team in advance of the mission to plan the release of information and decide which platforms they would utilise. With 10 communication centres dedicated to social media, NASA now has over 500 social media accounts for its various missions, with 8.3 million followers alone on its main NASA Facebook page and 14.5 million on Twitter. It is increasingly using its social media channels to publish the first, exclusive images of its missions, bypassing more established channels of media.
The success of NASA in drawing new viewers and subscribers to its varying social media platforms is not only down to the groundbreaking content at its disposal but also the visual and syntactic strategies that it uses to attract new followers. An example of this can be seen with the Mars Curiosity Rover.
The Curiosity Rover touched down on the surface of Mars on the 5th of August 2012 and has been exploring, taking soil samples and capturing images of the surface since. Images taken from the Mars Science Laboratory team, who analyse and control the rover, are posted on its Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter and Foursquare accounts, which document every step of the mission.
The rover’s Twitter account tweets in the first person as if the robot were an astronaut on a mission (or someone uploading their holiday pictures). This mode of communicating in the first person was first used by NASA on its Phoenix lander in 2008 as it began its descent to the surface of Mars, 170 million miles away from Earth. In the spur of the moment the head of media communication at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Veronica McGregor, chose to tweet in the first person. The success of using a first person narrative was initially, in this case, by accident. By tweeting ‘I’m’ instead of ‘the spacecraft’ more information could be included within the 140 character limit of the platform. The anthropomorphism of the lander allows for an emotional connection to be established with the machine and this rapidly expanded the amount of followers for the mission and has continued through many other missions, including the Curiosity rover. At the time the Phoenix lander became the 30th most followed account on Twitter and to this day still has over 300,000 followers.
The Curiosity Rover continues this lineage of first person narrative. Not only does this allow for an emotional connection to its followers, but it also utilises the same language and phrases that people themselves use in posting through social media. Tweets including: ‘I am safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!’, ‘I’m on a road trip to Mars’ Bagnold Dunes. What’s new with you?’, and ‘You like dune buggies? Everybody likes dune buggies. #selfie at Mars’ Namib Dune’ are examples of the emotive and everyday language used throughout NASA’s social media output to allow people to relate emotionally with the mission and transpose themselves into the narrative of each mission.
This connection to the viewer transports them from the everyday onto another world and triggers a reflection of the gravitude of the achievements of the mission in allowing us to see such vivid imagery of the surface of another planet and the amazing scientific value and discoveries being made by these machines.
The cameras on the rover work much like conventional digital cameras, though the images sent back to Earth are black and white RAW files, due to the constraints in file sizes that are required in sending packets of information back to Earth. These files are then converted into colour by the science laboratory team on Earth. To interpret colour from these images the scientists use a camera called the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI), which is a multi-focus colour camera attached to the robots arm. The scientists can interpret colour by capturing an image of a calibration target on the side of the rover which includes colour chips, a metric standardised bar graphic and a 1909 penny, featuring the profile of Abraham Lincoln. Many images taken by the main mastcam on top of the rover are multiple image composites stitched together to create a wider view of the landscape. The mission has gathered thousands of RAW image data, all accessible on the NASA website, however the scientists select images for their social media output based on conventions derived from archetypal social media images such as selfies, sunset images and landscape shots. Using these conventions and transferring them to another planet, creates a juxtaposition between the familiar aesthetic and the Martian landscape.
The use of conventional visual codes from photography and art can be seen throughout NASA’s history of disseminating images to the public. Another example are the Hubble Space Telescope images of Nebula and galaxies which utilise familiar aesthetic conventions as a frame for its stunning astrophotography. Hubble was launched 24th of April, 1990, and travels in a low Earth orbit at 17,000mph. Since launch it has made 1.2 million observations with its four main instruments in the ultraviolet, visible, and infrared spectra. The Hubble images presented to the public are highly constructed, far removed from the initial data sent back from the telescope. Transformed into vivid compositions that conform to the conventions of traditional landscape photography, these images are iconic and spectacular representations of the cosmos in colour.
The Hubble images presented to the public appear as stunning vistas in space. The reality is much different. The original black and white photographs captured by the telescope arrays initially have a grid structure, from the configuration of digital sensors. This grid, visible in the original image is removed along with any other optical ‘imperfections’ in post-production. Images are often re-orientated, such as the images of the Orion Nebula, which originally descended from the top of the image, and was rotated so that the gas pillars rise from the bottom of the image, to create mountainous or pillar-like structures. The images presented to the public are often a composite of different photographs through the wavelengths, from infra-red to x-ray. Scientists assign colour to map the wavelengths, otherwise invisible to the human eye, with colourising techniques, highlighting areas of scientific interest. Often this process of assigning colour is a aesthetic choice by the image editor, employing contrasting hues and saturated colour to highlight different gases, dust particles and light emissions for aesthetic value.
The final images presented to the public are vivid colour illustrations of the observed galaxies and nebulae, showing the beauty of the cosmos, though far removed from the reality of what can be seen by the naked eye.
In the essay The Landscape of Space, published in Hubble: Imaging Space and Time, Elizabeth Kessler discusses the similarities between the Hubble images and paintings of the 19th century American West. Founded by Thomas Cole, the Hudson River School provided the public with paintings of the beauty and wildness of the American West. The work of artists including Frederic Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran expressed the majesty and wildness of this unexplored frontier landscape. The paintings of canyons, mountain ranges and vast open spaces were themselves influenced by the European Romantic paintings of JMW Turner and Caspar David Friedrich and their use of colour and dramatic utilisation of hues; particularly in depicting skies. Kessler draws a parallel between the motives of this school of painters and that of NASA in its use of the Hubble images to spark an interest in contemporary science and astronomy; framing the cosmos as the new frontier. ‘Instead of a painter at the site, astronomers and image processors interpret the data and create a compelling representation. The resulting images of nebulae, galaxies, and star-fields recall a well established aesthetic tradition and in the process make these distant spacescapes familiar.’ The images created, and the use of ‘familiar’ aesthetics, ensure that the viewer is as drawn to the images as they are to the unexplored vistas of 19th century paintings.
The Hubble images form part of NASA’s visual strategy in creating a familiar aesthetic framing the unfamiliarity of the cosmos. This strategy has continued through to its most recent astronomical missions. The use of this aesthetic triggers associations with the pioneering nature of America and its exploration of new frontiers, feeding into the underlying origins of the European settlers of America. This message, of pioneering space exploration, inherent to NASA’s marketing strategy, allows the agency to justify its public funding to the government and public alike.
Before the advent of social media, NASA consistently used visual strategies garnered from artistic conventions to frame its astrophotography, such as with the Romantic aesthetic. This has continued through into its social media where it uses conventions from the various social media platforms themselves, for example in its use of ‘selfies’ images and ‘first-person’ communications. It allows their followers to get a first glimpse of the cosmos without going through the filter of mainstream media and for people to be involved and comment, like and share the images, creating a democratic and interactive experience for the viewer. NASA has even begun to include people who are particularly active in their social media interactions to be part of their organisation with events such as the NASA Socials, where active users can be involved in discussions with the agency about its missions and social media content. They are also invited to mission launches and events. As NASA pushes at the boundaries of imaging technologies it also continues to be at the forefront of new social media, enabling the agency to share its discoveries instantly with more of the 7 billion people around the world than ever before.
Charles Morgan Smith responds to the aesthetics of astrophotography and the ways in which scientists depict the cosmos. His interests include the ways in which photography is utilised as a means of representation and interpretations of beauty and the sublime. Through his most current work; UDF and Emissio, Smith has used images of the banal and everyday and created a series of ‘astrophotographs’, exploring notions of scale, aesthetics and the limitations of photography and representation.
Smith holds an MA in Photography from the University of Brighton. He also received a BA (Hons) Photography from The Southampton Solent University in 2010.