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    Experience #PlutoFlyBy live at the upcoming art exhibition, Hashtags Unplugged in New York. Get Tickets


    Almost 10 years in the making

    “We made an editorial decision to give the world a sneak peek of the image on Instagram,” NASA social media manager John Yembrick wrote in an email to WIRED. “We feel it's important to engage new audiences.”

    NASA posted this image to their Instagram account at 7am and to their website at around 8am EST on July 14, 2015.

    This was the first time NASA had announced something on social media prior to announcing it on (or directly to the media, in the days of yore). It was also the first time the world had seen anything close to a clear image of Pluto…

    ...the last planet in our solar system to be photographed.

    Spacecraft New Horizons, launched in 2006 with a mission of collect information on Pluto and the edges of our solar system, took the photo. With the completion of this mission, NASA had visited every planet in our solar system.

    And social media brought that experience to the world in near real time.

    New Horizons, 9 Years and 3 Billion Miles Leading to #PlutoFlyBy

    New Horizons launched on January 19, 2006.

    It's an unmanned spacecraft the size of a baby grand piano.

    It's an unmanned spacecraft the size of a baby grand piano. According to NASA, “The New Horizons mission is helping us understand worlds at the edge of our solar system by making the first reconnaissance of the dwarf planet Pluto and by venturing deeper into the distant, mysterious Kuiper Belt – a relic of solar system formation.”

    The spacecraft is the first to explore how these bodies, on the outskirts of our solar system, have evolved over time. Data collected could help inform the story about our system's origins.

    And the spacecraft started its own Twitter account during this journey, about 11 months before its closest encounter with Pluto:

    NASA, Social Media Behemoth

    NASA has over 500 social media accounts managed by employees at 10 different field centers across the U.S.

    Their main, simply-NASA-branded channels, have huge followings: almost 11M followers on Instagram, over 15M followers on both Twitter and Facebook, and over 800K YouTube subscribers.

    Then there are the separate accounts for projects like New Horizons, which has 285K of its own Twitter followers.

    It's all a bit confusing. But it isn't keeping the followers away.

    The World Reacts

    NASA's Pluto portrait on Instagram has 364K likes and was the organization's most successful Instagram post ever, according to John Yembrick, NASA's social media manager. He was the opening keynote speaker at ClickZ Live, where he shared some further statistics:

    “Beyond Instagram, NASA posted the Pluto image to Twitter and hosted a TweetChat, #askNASA, where two scientists answered 63 questions in 45 minutes. The space agency also initiated a Facebook Q&A and Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) around planet Pluto to drive engagement.

    The results, in Yembrick's own words, were phenomenal. On Twitter, NASA's Pluto post reached around 38.6 million users with total engagements – replies, retweets and favorites – exceeding 65,000; on Reddit, the Pluto conversation is ranked the 14th top Reddit AMA of all time.”

    #PlutoFlyBy was the top trend on Twitter on the morning of Tuesday, July 14, 2015.

    Some even took to art to express their inspiration:

    Pizza Hut UK maintained the confusion that they established with our research on brand tweets in response to #TheDress (learn more about #TheDress):

    What is State Farm doing? Coneheads? How does this make sense?

    And Neil deGrasse Tyson felt the need to weigh in. He tweeted a series of #PlutoFacts to his 5M followers just prior to July 14 in order to clear up his reputation as a #PlutoKiller—because he was part of the group of scientists that reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet in 2006. (He even wrote a book about Pluto's reclassification and the public's response in 2009.) Here's one example of how he manages to have a sense of humor and spread some knowledge in 140 characters or less:

    The #PlutoFlyBy had been planned for months, even years, down to the hour, then the minute as New Horizons got closer and closer. Not all hashtags arise from such scientific precision. NASA planned their social media strategy for the event and benefited from the premeditation.

    @NASANewHorizons continues to use #PlutoFlyBy as they share more images, information gleaned, and conclusions drawn from last summer's image collection period.

    What We Learned About Pluto

    The flyby itself took only a few minutes, with the spacecraft traveling over 30,000 mph as it got to within 8,000 miles of the surface of Pluto.

    On the whole, we learned that Pluto is likely 2/3 rock and 1/3 water ice, which behaves like rock because it's so cold where Pluto is within the solar system. Pluto is now officially classified as a rocky body.

    Part of the heart area is a fascinating icy plains region named Sputnik Planum (or Sputnik Plain) after Earth's first artificial satellite. It is estimated to be no more than 100 million years old and might be in the process of geological transformation. A NASA press release provides further information, including this:

    “The Pluto system surprised us in many ways, most notably teaching us that small planets can remain active billions of years after their formation,” said Stern, with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. “We were also taught important lessons by the degree of geological complexity that both Pluto and its large moon Charon display.”

    Some of the processes on Pluto appear to have occurred geologically recently, including those that involve the water-ice rich bedrock as well as the more volatile, and presumably more mobile, ices of the western lobe of Pluto's “heart.” The diverse geology and apparent recent activity raise fundamental questions about how small planetary bodies remain active many billions of years after formation. The research suggests that other large worlds in the Kuiper belt -- such as Eris, Makemake, and Haumea -- could also have similarly complex histories that rival those of terrestrial planets such as Mars and Earth.

    New Horizons shared a graphic on Twitter that illustrates some of the geological activity:

    A Space Agency's Work Is Never Done

    Sending complex data across 3 billion miles isn't the same thing as streaming Netflix, even if you're stealing your neighbor's WiFi and have a weak connection.

    That thing puts a household router to shame.

    During most of the flyby, New Horizons went dark to allocate more resources to collecting data during the short time it had near Pluto and its five moons. (The high resolution Pluto heart image had already been sent back to Earth.)

    Half of the data still hadn't been downloaded as of February 26, 2016, more than seven months after the flyby.

    The data collection process is explained in an excellent, accessible blog post on the NASA website, written by Emma Birath (who makes for a good #ILookLikeAnEngineer candidate!).

    The image of Pluto sending its love to us Earthlings was iconic, but there were many more. And there are likely even more space photos to come.

    New Horizons is now over 3 billion miles away from Earth, past Pluto. Its course can be tracked here.

    Or you can just keep following along on Twitter.

    I take that back, router. No shame. Thanks for keeping little ol' me connected with rocky bodies on the outer reaches of our solar system.

    It's nothing short of amazing.

    Experience #PlutoFlyBy live at the upcoming art exhibition, Hashtags Unplugged in New York.

    Get Tickets