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Signals from #space

Inga Vesper glimpses the world of Twitter space-science fans and fanatics at the European Space Agency’s ‘tweetup’.

“What? You’ve never met Camilla, the space chicken?” @CraftLass looks at me in astonishment.

I shrug helplessly. I am only just getting my head around the fact that I am sitting in a “twent”, watching endless Twitter messages raining down on a “monitter”, which has been fixed over a “twibune” at the centre of the twent.

But I still haven’t figured out what a tweeper is. Or why people shout “awesome” at random. And for that matter, who is Camilla?

I know only one thing: this is serious geek territory.

It’s 18 September and I’m at the European Space Agency’s first-ever tweetup, a meeting of Twitter followers. The 60 attendees collectively have over 20,000 Twitter followers, in Germany. Some have come from as far away as New Zealand, Canada and the US. Space fans to the core, many wear blue shirts with mission badges sewn on. They follow NASA’s Twitter feed religiously.

My newest Twitter buddy @craftlass (real tweeps don’t use their given names), for example, tells me she is “addicted to shuttle launches”. Then there is @NickAstronomer, former Ultravox star and passionate astronomy writer. But there are also people like @UN_SPIDER, who is “just here to check it out”. He’s never met a space chicken either. I feel relieved.

The tweetup idea came from NASA, and was adopted by ESA as a means of engaging the public.

The day starts with a couple of airplanes: ESA’s A380 research plane and Sofia, a plane adapted for a NASA mission to take infrared images of stars. As we enter the aircraft, #awesome starts to trend on the #spacetweetup feed. I see nothing but cables and screens, but my fellow Tweeters are in ecstasy. Tentatively I decide to tweet a picture of a pile of cables.

“@ResearchEurope Inside DLR A380”.

The response from @smarcu is instant: “#AWESOME”

The German Aerospace Centre (DLR), which hosts the ESA tweetup, has a tight programme for us. Back at the twent we listen to several talks on the Rosetta mission. I am starting to tweet more regularly, this stuff is interesting. And I am enjoying how my little messages flash up on the monitter, right between those of @amoroso, @Fidget02 and @ageekmom.

Suddenly a man and a woman in blue overalls take the stage. The two are Cady Coleman and Paolo Nespoli, astronauts from the ISS. I ask @Brigitte_Ba next to me what’s happening, and she whispers in awe: “It’s @astro_Cady.”

The ISS crew tweets regularly, but @astro_Cady is special. Her tweets about playing the flute in the ISS cupola, watching Discovery landings from space and seeing Chinese new year fireworks from above ring a special bell with space fans. She has 17,000 followers.

But it gets better. Several other astronauts come on stage and give talks. NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, who has spent a record 380 days in space, comes to our table and talks about how #awesome it was to see Earth from afar. The astronauts are friendly, and their experiences are wondrous and exciting. I am trying to stay detached, but I can’t. Now I am starting to understand people like @travelholic, who travelled around the world to see the last NASA shuttle launch last year.

“Space is an endless adventure,” he says. “These events are the closest we will ever get to it, so they are an #awesome opportunity. The shuttle launch—it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

During the last leg of the tweetup, a visit to ESA’s astronaut training centre, we go into the mock-up ISS and I get to sit at the docking controls. I tweet: “#awesome”.

As we head back to the twent for free bratwurst I take a tally. I’ve tweeted 48 times today and gained 40 new Twitter followers for the @ResearchEurope Twitter feed. I’ve met 11 astronauts and collected four mission badges for my blue shirt.

And I have met @rocketman528, who cradles a rubber chicken in a space suit in his arms. This is the famous Camilla, the mascot of NASA’s Corona SDO mission, and unofficial star of the tweetup.

“She really wants to be your friend,” insists @rocketman528, and takes a picture of the chicken and me. I am somewhat embarrassed, but think that no one needs to know about this.

Twenty seconds later, the picture is up on @Camilla_SDO’s Twitter feed.

The chicken has 2,541 followers.

Tweep-tionary

* http://twitter.com is a micro-blogging website on which people post short messages of no more than 140 characters, and sign up to follow the messages of other people on Twitter

* Twitter is a way to keep up to speed on the latest news, events, gossip and more

* Twitter users (known as Tweeps) interested in the same topic can create a common discussion (topics begin with a #)

* If lots of people are following a particular topic, this is known as “trending”

* Anyone can create a Twitter account, and names are displayed with the symbol @

* Research Europe’s Twitter account is @ResearchEurope