Wednesday, June 16, 2010
One big big reason to love JAXA (Japan's space agency) is that they seem to really understand what people want to see from space exploration, and that's not only hard science but also a lot of eye candy. NASA's Lunar Prospector from 1998 was probably the best example of the opposite, a probe that carried out some good science on the Moon (and was the first probe to the Moon in decades) but didn't have a single camera. The result: people already interested in space monitored the probe's progress, others didn't. Without snazzy pictures a probe may as well not exist for most.
ESA is another good example of this with Venus Express, a probe with updates every ten months or so. As a big Venus fan I was quite disappointed with the lack of attention paid to keeping the public informed.
Dawn is a good example of what to do, with a chief engineer who makes otherwise boring updates extremely entertaining and informative. Here's the latest.
And back to JAXA: the most prominent example of JAXA understanding the public is probably all the HD images and movies sent back from Kaguya, the most entertaining images of the Moon since Apollo. This video alone has almost 300000 hits, which is 300000 more people thinking about the Moon than otherwise would have.
The most recent example of JAXA doing a good job here is in a video describing Hayabusa (the probe that just re-entered Earth two days ago). The video is here, but the most important part is at the end which looks like this:
Being able to visualize objects such as these is extremely important in keeping people interested in space. If the video had simply said "Itokawa is 540 metres in diameter" it would have meant nothing to most, but with the ISS next to it it's now easy to visualize. Many have seen pictures of the Space Shuttle docked there or videos from the inside, and by having it next to the asteroid you can now imagine what it would be like to stand on the surface, and "walk" around (since you can't really walk on such a tiny asteroid), Little Prince-style. Every news article and infographic on an asteroid or small planet should have such comparisons. If it's large then a country next to it with comparable surface area, and if smaller then a city or building or football field or something else. I wrote a post giving a few examples of this a year ago.
It will be interesting to see what happens with Akatsuki after it arrives at Venus in December, as then we'll be able to see the difference between ESA-style promotion and that done by JAXA. Mind you, I certainly appreciate the fact that the ESA has sent a mission to Venus and has a number of other interesting ones as well (Rosetta right now is a good example, and the Plato telescope is the one I'm most looking forward to) but a few of their teams are a little bit lax on the PR and that's a bit of a missed opportunity.