The tweeting spaceman

Chris Hadfield isn’t an actor, comedian or pop star, but he has more than half-a-million followers on Twitter. While the fact he’s an astronaut – and the first Canadian to walk in space – marks him out as special, it’s his daily updates from more than 400km above the Earth’s surface that make him a social media star.

Commander Hadfield is the man who tweets from space.

Through ordinary social networking services, Hadfield talks about his experiences, takes part in Google+ Hangouts, and shares stunning photos taken of Earth from a low Earth orbit.

He isn’t doing it for self-aggrandisement. He’s doing it because he believes in the mission of the International Space Station (ISS), the research it’s doing and the impact that it might have on the future.

In Hadfield’s words: “the space station is the crucible where space exploration technology is designed and tested. When we go further out, it will be heavily indebted to the pedigree of space hardware proven on ISS.”

Tweeting from the ISS

Hadfield – who is set to return to Earth on 13 May – can tweet from the ISS thanks to a data link between the station and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas – home of NASA Mission Control.

Chris Hadfield in Space

“My laptop here onboard communicates to a server in Houston via satellite relay, and that server on the ground is hooked through a computer to the internet,” Hadfield told an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on Reddit. “The data rate is very slow, not fast enough to watch video, but perfect for things like Reddit and Twitter. We have the data link about half the time.”

Through his Twitter account – @Cmdr_Hadfield – Hadfield shared everything from a fire alarm on the space station – “the alarms just rang, we reacted as trained, used sensors to sniff behind suspect panels, false alarm” – to breakfast – “Good morning from Earth Orbit! Breakfast is rehydrated cornflakes, dried milk, bag of peaches and instant black coffee. Time to get to work.”

Most of all, he’s astonished followers with amazing photos, covering life on the ISS, experiments and operations, and – in particular – the Earth from above. Whether it’s Mount Etna erupting, the intense colours of the Great Barrier Reef or formations along the Dorset coast, Hadfield has tweeted photos that are changing the way people see their world.

South Africa from Space

The shots are taken on 12.4-megapixel Nikon D2X and 12.1-megapixel full-frame Nikon D3S digital SLR cameras, with a number of lenses ranging from a fish-eye to a 400mm telephoto.

Hadfield takes 20 to 30 photos a day and usually posts up to eight, uploading them through his laptop to Twitter via the Houston server. Since there’s usually a backlog, there’s often a three- or four-day delay on uploading the latest batch, although more urgent shots, such as Mount Etna erupting, are uploaded within hours.

Mount Etna exploding

Hadfield’s photography and social media activities aren’t the result of a NASA directive or Canadian Space Agency initiative; he spends the working day performing experiments and handling ISS operations or maintenance, and tweets in his spare time.

Indeed, the 53-year-old astronaut was encouraged to adopt Twitter, Reddit and other social networks not by his bosses but by his two sons – Evan, who helps manage his father’s social media accounts, and Kyle.

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