So this is my
first post as an author on this blog (and indeed, any blog other than
my own), so given that everyone here likes to twitter about space, I
thought that might be rather a good discussion to kick off with! I must
admit, I was a bit skeptical of Twitter at first, but it’s steadily
growing into a very useful platform for sharing information, catching
news headlines and swapping factoids with other scientists and
enthusiasts. The question is, where might this be heading? And are
there more ways to use it?

The vast majority of NASA missions these days have Twitter feeds. Not just the people like @Astro_Mike but the actual telescopes and probes themselves, like @CassiniSaturn, @NASAKepler, @MESSENGER2011 and @NewHorizons2015.
During the most recent space missions, I’ve been finding myself
repeatedly using Twitter as my main news feed. The combination of
expert opinions and input from people directly involved in events makes
for compulsive reading, as well as better information and/or links to
other sites.

But what about things which humans aren’t really suitable to report
on? The kind of things which might be better suited to an automated
feed?

Like them or loathe them, automated twitter feeds aren’t entirely
unheard of. The best examples are probably based at Manchester
University’s Jodrell Bank Observatory,  @JodrellBank.
To my knowledge, three of the observatory’s telescopes have live
twitter feeds, giving the current coordinates (in Right Ascention and
Declination) of whatever the dish is currently pointing at — found on
twitter as @LovellTelescope, @42ft and @7metre. The upshot is that anyone feeling curious enough can just load up Simbad and spy on whatever the telescopes are currently observing.

The question is if and when people are going to realise what a
useful tool Twitter could actually be for real time astronomical events
— The biggest research area being gamma ray bursts (or GRBs for short).
After being discovered initially by one of the orbiting high energy
observatories (Fermi or
Swift),  GRBs are then tracked in real time by as many ground based
telescopes as are available as they fade (in order to monitor the
afterglow and collect a light curve). These systems in many telescopes
are completely automated. If a telescope is idling, it will
automatically repoint and take either photometric or spectroscopic data
accordingly. Indeed, there are also websites which can give you a real time GRB sky map.
Why not a twitter feed? It surely couldn’t be too difficult for someone
to automate a system whereby a twitter update is posted every time a
new GRB is detected — perhaps giving data on coordinates and apparent
magnitude.

Indeed, other real time events can be important for astronomers too.
Twitter could be a convenient way to disseminate information like this
to whomsoever wanted to receive it. Supernovae, for instance. Or, as
soon as pan-STARRS
is up and running, near-Earth asteroids. Further, it could doubtless be
useful for telescope operators or researchers to be able to actually
receive a text message on their mobile phone informing them of such
real time events. The ability for anyone to watch too, also allows
hobbyists or other enthusiasts to get involved.

Of course, this is all just speculation, but it would be an
interesting way to use the Twitter engine. As “social networking” sites
go, it certainly has a lot more potential than I originally gave it
credit for!