Live tweeting against this week's apocalypse -- and next week's too

Posted by Eric Betz
on Friday, September 18, 2015

Meet NASA’s woman in charge of fighting doomsday asteroids using less than 140 characters.

The Chelyabinsk fireball lit up the skies over Russia in 2013. Asteroid expert Mark Boslough and colleagues used witnesses' photos to re-create its path in this digital rendition made on a supercomputer. (3-D simulation: M. Boslough and B Carvey; Tail composite: A Carvey; Image: O. Kruglova/Sandia National Labs)
Veronica McGregor is a patient person. Every day, she uses 140 characters or less to knock down doomsday rumors from worried souls convinced the world will end today, or next week, or sometime in 2022.

This time, the hype surrounds an imaginary asteroid that will hit Earth any day now and may or may not be related to the September 27 lunar eclipse.

The Chilean earthquake this week didn’t help calm things down. As The Mirror put it, “a plethora of horrors are expected to rain down and ravage the planet including meteor strikes, earthquakes, tsunamis and even as some suggest a torrent from Almighty God himself.”

Why? Because someone posted a Youtube video that said it would happen. Also, because it’s great clickbait for fear-mongering websites. But it’s not only tabloids. More respectable science news outlets also love headlines about asteroids that “just missed” Earth. The combination of overhyped real science and garden-variety gullible people creates a potent mix online.

The world has likely never had a shortage of deranged and/or gullible people, as well as those willing to exploit them with end-of-the-world claims. However, the Internet has made it much easier to spread such foolishness.

“At the same time we’re telling people that the asteroid that’s been described in this hoax doesn’t exist, we have to be very careful not to say asteroids can’t hit Earth in September,” McGregor says. “We’re always looking.”

McGregor is in charge of communications at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. But she made a name for herself as NASA’s social media guru when she gave voice to the Phoenix Mars lander in 2008. The former CNN field producer says it was her idea to tweet in first person. And she soon set a standard of spacecraft anthropomorphization that’s become common across space agencies.

As science writing jobs declined precipitously during the recession, Facebook and Twitter gave her a new way to reach audiences.

McGregor says JPL started the @AsteroidWatch Twitter account in the wake of great success with other handles. The account is a joint effort between JPL's news and Near Earth Object offices. So McGregor bounces questions off expert Paul Chodas and others before sending out many of the tweets and press releases. And she thought it would be a fun way to talk about the science of comets and asteroids, as well as let people know about asteroids that pass close to Earth. Such encounters offer astronomers excellent opportunities to study space rocks close up, and pose little threat to our planet.

But she quickly realized the audience was not the same as that of NASA’s other accounts. @AsteroidWatch grew to over a million followers in just four months. And the responses weren’t the same.

“There was an asteroid that would pass within three lunar orbits [of Earth] and all of the responses were complete panic,” McGregor says. “These people are just terrified of asteroids.”

Instead of getting frustrated, she realized @AsteroidWatch’s one million plus followers provided the opportunity to spark an interest in science beyond NASA’s normal crowd.

And for more than five years she’s been answering their questions — all of them.

Can an asteroid veer off course? No. Is NASA covering up a massive doomsday impact? No. And even if they were, other astronomers, including amateurs, would still see it. What was that bright streak in the sky? It’s very likely a fireball, and you should report it to the American Meteor Society.

That last frequently answered question went off script on February 15, 2013. McGregor was stemming the doomsday tide of tweets associated with the close-passing asteroid 2012 DA14 when someone in Russia tweeted a fireball video to @AsteroidWatch.

“I was monitoring that account that night. I’m trying to calm people down — ‘No, it won’t veer off course,’” McGregor says. Then someone sent in a fireball video. At first, she didn’t think much of it. But then another video was posted showing the impressive flash. “I got on the phone immediately with one of our asteroid experts.”

It was NASA’s first knowledge of the Chelyabinsk fireball that has brought international attention to asteroids ever since.

McGregor says the rise in popularity of dashboard and security camera video has given many people the impression that there’s been an increase in meteor activity. Astronomers have shown that’s not the case, but, unsurprisingly, many haven’t gotten the message.

“Usually when people write to me about fireballs, I tell them they’re amazingly beautiful things to see in the sky and they’re very lucky,” she says.

All of these responses (and the number is truly impressive) are in addition to her day-to-day duties of running what has essentially become JPL’s own newsroom. In the time since she started exploiting social media to connect the public with NASA spacecraft, the number of JPL missions has doubled.

Now, they have podcasts, multiple video series, regular press releases, and their own news site. “I was never as busy at CNN as I am here,” she says. So she tweets against the apocalypse from home and on weekends, and whenever she can squeeze in the time when a hoax goes viral.

And that’s unlikely to let up. Chances are, there will be a new doomsday next month. 

Eric Betz is associate editor of Astronomy. He’s on Twitter: @ericbetz

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