NASA dominated space and social media in 2016

The space agency was a big winner despite funding woes.

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"We all have a thirst for wonder," American astronomer Carl Sagan wrote in his sci-fi novel Contact. "It's a deeply human quality." And it's partly thanks to this "thirst" that NASA had the space game on lock this year, even though it doesn't have access to as much money as it used to. The agency stepped into 2016 armed with $19.3 billion in government funding. Yes, that's almost a $1 billion more than what the administration originally asked for, but it's also significantly lower than NASA's budget in previous years, when adjusted for inflation.

This relatively smaller allowance can't sustain the whole agency when it's working on huge projects like the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule. Combined, those two cost NASA $3 billion a year. As a result, some areas get more money than others. For fiscal year 2017, for instance, the government set aside $1 billion more for the division in charge of developing SLS and Orion. However, research and development will get 80 percent less than what it got for 2016.

You wouldn't guess that the space agency has money troubles based on how its missions dominated headlines and made a splash on social media this year, though. NASA started using social media to win legions of post-Apollo fans' hearts and make it more relatable than other government agencies in 2008. Veronica McGregor, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's head of communication, was looking for a way to get people to care that the Phoenix lander was going to touch down on Mars when somebody told her about this fledgling social network called Twitter. "At the spur of the moment," she told Quartz, "I decided I would tweet as the lander in the first person."


That's right: Just a few years ago, people couldn't care less that a major Mars mission was reaching its destination. Today, fans wake up at dawn to watch live coverage of rocket launches for routine resupply missions headed for the International Space Station (ISS).

John Yembrick, the agency's social-media manager, told Engadget that NASA now employs a pack of social-media experts to handle 500 accounts across multiple platforms. The agency is active on most social networks and even started exploring teens' favorite online haunts, Tumblr and Snapchat. These employees, who make it a point to avoid scientific jargon, are divided into teams to manage different accounts. There are, however, four core members who run the main @NASA handle.

The experts' wit, humor and superb use of pop-culture references translate into likes and shares that help NASA reach even more potential fans. Case in point: The purple nebula the main @NASA team tweeted in honor of Prince is so far the agency's most liked and retweeted post for 2016.

NASA now boasts 123.7 million followers across all social-media accounts, or 36 million more than the total from November last year. And that number will likely continue to grow now that it has begun wielding the power of video. It aired a Snapchat Story in May showing the app's young users how astronauts live aboard the ISS. Recently, another Story showed how astronauts train and prepare for a six-month mission aboard humanity's home in space.

From their end, ISS residents regularly post impressive images and videos of our planet taken from high up. In May this year, Tim Kopra and Jeff Williams even chatted with Mark Zuckerberg through Facebook Live while aboard the space station.

Another factor that contributed to the massive media attention showered upon NASA this year is its ties with private space companies. Its projects with SpaceX made a lot of noise, and it certainly helped that the company's chief (Elon Musk) enjoys rockstar status in the tech industry. NASA's work with Boeing, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK and other space corporations didn't go unnoticed, either.

While NASA's social-media strategy is undoubtedly effective, the agency would have nothing to promote without the missions themselves. It started 2016 on a strong note, thanks to New Horizons' success in late 2015, which brought us new images of Pluto's complex surface and data on its terrain and potential liquid ocean.

In January, its Earth observation satellite, Jason-3, finally made its way to space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 flight after a series of delays. Jason-3 carries instruments that give it the capability to measure the height of the ocean's surface all over the globe "with very high accuracy" for scientific research.

A few months later, in April, a SpaceX rocket flew to the ISS with Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable habitat in tow. Crew members attached an expandable module called BEAM to the space station to see if it could endure the harsh conditions of space for the next two years. They've been visiting the module regularly since they climbed into it for the first time in June, and recently confirmed that BEAM is doing great. It looks like inflatable modules really could be viable space habitats.

NASA's biggest story for 2016, however, is Juno's arrival at Jupiter. After traveling for five years, the probe finally reached the gas giant July 4th and even set a record for being the most distant solar-powered spacecraft. The event provided yet another example of the agency's exemplary use of social media:

Juno has been beaming back photos ever since -- some even gave us a glimpse of the planet's rarely seen poles. A few months after it began orbiting Jupiter, though, the space explorer's engine went out of whack and forced it to shut down its instruments. Thankfully, it's now doing just fine and completed its latest flyby earlier this month, on December 11th.

While it didn't get quite as much online attention as Juno did, the launch of OSIRIS-Rex was another notch on NASA's belt this year. OSIRIS-Rex will reach its destination, an asteroid named Bennu, in a couple of years. Once there, the spacecraft will go to work mapping the 1,650-foot rock and taking its temperature every two seconds. It's also expected to bring home a chunk of the celestial body, which astronomers believe could contain clues about the beginning of the solar system and life on Earth.

NASA celebrated another major victory in mid-November, when it completed the long-awaited Hubble successor. The James Webb Space Telescope has been in development for over two decades; it's a NASA-led collaboration of 17 countries and has a much larger mirror than Hubble.

Image: Northrop Grumman

Since having a larger eye means it has a more powerful ability to peer into the past, its main goals include looking for light from the first stars that formed after the Big Bang. The data it beams back could help astronomers understand the evolution of galaxies and the origin of life. Despite James Webb's completion, NASA is far from laying Hubble to rest. Earlier this year, astronomers from all over the world used the Great Observatory to spot the most distant galaxy we've discovered. In fact, Hubble will continue providing astronomers everywhere with valuable data for at least five more years.

A few days after NASA and its collaborators finished putting James Webb together, the agency's and NOAA's most advanced weather satellite called GOES-4 left the planet. It's the first of the four advanced satellites that the partners are planning to launch under the GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite) initiative. Together, the four of them can scan the Western Hemisphere five times faster than their current counterparts can and churn out images every 30 seconds. That will give NOAA the capability to monitor wildfires, hurricanes and other phenomena in real time.

NASA's other missions weren't idly sitting around while the agency was launching new spacecraft, either. The Dawn probe sent back the closest images of the dwarf planet Ceres we've seen, while New Horizons continued to enrich our knowledge of Pluto. Cassini provided a better look at the second-largest methane sea on Saturn's moon Titan. Closer to home, on Mars, the Curiosity rover kept driving around and sending back more data and pictures of a dusty, rocky world.

Image: NASA

In March, astronaut Scott Kelly came home after living on the ISS for a year as part of NASA's efforts to determine the effects of long-term space travel on the human body. Before his flight home, though, he grew a flower on the orbiting lab for the first time. His fellow astronaut Kate Rubins, on the other hand, was responsible for another first: She sequenced DNA in microgravity using a USB-sized MinION sequencer. Rubins and her colleague Jeff Williams also finished the installation of a parking dock for space taxis in August. When SpaceX and Boeing take up the task of ferrying astronauts to the ISS, that dock will serve as home to their Crew Dragon and Starliner vehicles.

Back here on the ground, the agency continued building and rigorously testing the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule. It kickstarted a number of missions, as well, even though the switch in administration could shake things up. NASA's projects typically require long-term planning, you see, and a new administration could disrupt its plans or even shut specific missions down. Yembrick told Engadget, however, that the agency remains optimistic in the face of possible changes:

In fact, NASA has already begun preparing for future endeavors. It announced several new missions this year, including the construction of an exoplanet-hunting tool. The agency also introduced the next-gen rover for the red planet, the Mars 2020, which will surely help sate fans' hunger for anything and everything space in the years to come.

Check out all of Engadget's year-in-review coverage right here.

NASA: Year in review

"We believe that future leaders will be enthusiastic about continuing the important work that NASA has been engaged in over these past several years, including the Journey to Mars."