Like many an unsung artist or writer, the late Mars Phoenix Lander's fame has increased since the robot expired last week — thanks to social-networking tools that gave it a human voice.
The Phoenix amassed nearly 40,000 friends on Twitter and almost 4,000 fans on Facebook courtesy of a NASA spokeswoman who sent cheeky transmissions from the robot as it slowly froze to death on the Red Planet, the Arizona Daily Star reports today. "Not everyone gets the chance to read their own epitaph(s). So many great entries, I feel so loved :-)," the Phoenix "told" Twitter users on Nov. 5, five days before NASA declared it caput (but three days after it stopped communicating with the agency).
Human interest surged when NASA spokesperson Veronica McGregor began penning replies to Web queries about the space bot. "A lot of the perkiness really developed as the result of the types of questions I was getting back," McGregor told the Star. "And once I started writing in first person, immediately people started writing back and responding."
On Thursday, one Facebook fan lamented the demise of the anthropomorphic Phoenix this way: "Goodbye … I'd give you a hug if you weren't 120,000,000 miles away." Another wrote, "i'm gonna miss you little buddy :(." A third declared, "Goodbye brave little Phoenix!"
For its part, the Phoenix was philosophical about its inevitable end after working for five months on Mars, verifying the presence of ice water below the planet's surface and snapping 25,000 pictures. That was a necessary attitude for the robot to convey to its devoted fans, McGregor said. "They did get very emotionally attached, much more so than I expected," she told the newspaper. "So I spent some time trying to brace them for the loss."
"One of the most common questions I'm asked is whether I knew going in that this mission would cost me my life," she wrote on Gizmodo on Election Day. "The answer to that is yes, of course, and there's not a single robotic explorer in our solar system that doesn't know it faces the same fate. Unlike all of you, most of us can't go home again."
But going to its final resting place on Mars, the Phoenix (er, McGregor) wrote then, is "a heck of a better place to be than locked in storage."
Illustration of Mars Phoenix Lander by NASA/JPL/UA/Lockheed Martin