Social Media Aggregates Space News For Breakfast

Getting the full experience: Twitter provided a ring-side seat during today's Hubble servicing spacewalk (NASA).
Getting the full experience: Twitter provided a ring-side seat during today's Hubble servicing spacewalk (NASA).

Earlier today, 500 people meandered through, and I was a little confused as to where they came from. I checked the social bookmarking sites, but this particular page wasn’t listed. Normally, an excess collection of visitors will appear from the aether after quasi-randomly plopping onto my server from StumbleUpon, or blasting my bandwidth during a Digg surge, but this traffic was different. The visitors found my website after clicking a link on a new website called A Portal To The Universe. I knew the site existed, but I hadn’t had the time to check it out. But it is awesome.

Astroengine’s regular readers will know that I have a fascination with the movers and shakers in the world of social media, and I have found various ways to use it for my evil intelligence gathering methods. Also, I’ve met some fantastic people along the way and made very good friends. This time last year, if someone said, “Ian, you will make real friendships online in 12 months,” I would have thought, a) OMG, I’ll be more of a geek than I am now! or b) that is the saddest thing I’ve heard in my life, I never want to see this laptop again.

But then, the web mist cleared, and I saw the light (with a little help from my good friend Avi). Social media isn’t about connecting with a bunch of strangers who have little care for who you are or what you do, it’s about forming social links with like-minded people who have a genuine interest in what you have to say. It’s not quantity (@aplusk-style; why would you want the responsibility of entertaining over a million followers on Twitter anyway?), it’s quality that counts.

Before I realized it, I was collaborating, communicating and collecting space news from real people with real science to distribute. I was tweeting, digging, stumbling, reddit-ting, mixxing and generally socializing my heart out. Along the way, certain platforms fell by the wayside, and now I’m currently enjoying Twitter (more than I should), StumbleUpon and pretty much all the Google applications. Facebook has been steady and so has Digg (for better or worse).

Information reloaded

Building a community is the mainstay of social media, but what do you do if you have too much information flooding your bookmarks? You might use an RSS feed aggrigator, or you might filter your Twitter messages, but wouldn’t it be great if you had a website that helped you find the specific information you are looking for, and helped you find other like-minded people in an ocean of chatter?

But now it would appear space news is welcoming social media with open arms. Two exciting projects have appeared online, using the best information gathering techniques on Web 2.0. Finally, it would appear space science is getting the attention it deserves.

Portal to the Universe


In celebration of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA 2009), the Portal to the Universe was launched at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (JENAM 2009), that took place at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, in April.

It is a fantastic news platform with featured news from a range of blogs and news sources. Real-time data is also available from many missions with a wealth of socially generated topics. In the spirit of social media, the Portal grabs community-based space news, displaying all the relevant news to the astronomy and space community. An amazing resource I have been using since it was launched.

Keeping up-to-date with cutting-edge astronomy and space science breakthroughs has just become that much easier, thanks to the Portal To The Universe, the latest Cornerstone project of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009). As a high-tech website embracing Web 2.0 technologies, the Portal To The Universe aims to become a one-stop-shop for astronomy news.Portal to the Universe



This website actually came as a surprise to me. Ricardo J. Tohmé, founder of AstroSpaceNow, contacted me on Twitter and mentioned they were starting up a social astronomy blog. Fortunately, I went to the site to check it out and was impressed with the design of the “coming soon” page. Feeling I’d be left out if I didn’t, I signed myself up for the newsletter and forgot about it.

Then, as promised, a week later, the site went live.

Looking at the pages of AstroSpaceNow, there is a very real Twitter/microblogging feel, and at first, I was a little cautious. There has been a massive surge of the bold-colour/bold-type websites over the last few months, so I didn’t want this to be just another Twitter aggregator with a space twist.

As it turns out, AstroSpaceNow is tremendously powerful. It uses the power and speed of Twitter to keep up to date with key space-related Twitter accounts. Each account is tagged and colour-coded so you can quickly scan through the lists. Each Twitter stream is categorized and the site refreshes every five minutes.

So, if you want to find out what the space news buzz is all about right now, and find the interesting people who are buzzing, this is the site for you. It’s another fantastic resource for space bloggers, as one glance at the pages of AstroSpaceNow and you know exactly what is going on.

Ask the Astroengine Community a Question


In an effort to enhance the community, I’ve now added a rather exciting new feature to the site. If you scroll down, and look at the right-hand side bar, you’ll notice an “ask a question” panel. This gadget is driven by Google Friend Connect, so this should appeal to the majority of readers.

What makes this even more exciting is that the panel is specific to each page you browse on, so you can ask a question about a certain article and interact with other readers who might have a link or explanation to help you out. For example, I posed a question on the recent article “Mystery Blob Detected 12.9 Billion Light Years Away,” asking what people thought the “blob” was (and my hope that it’s a supermassive black hole… cue a bit of Muse awesomeness).

So, have a play, keep it clean and have fun! Any problems, drop me a comment and I’ll see if I can help.

Thank you Avi for bringing my attention to this great little gadget 🙂

Cheers, Ian

Could Active-SETI Learn From… Twitter?


The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been an ongoing endeavour for the last 50 years. Detecting radio communications from an alien civilization would be the most profound event in mankind’s history; its effect would change the way we view our origin and our place in the Universe. It could mean that far from “being alone” we could be existing in a cosmic ecosystem, where life is more common than not and advanced extraterrestrial civilizations are no longer science fiction. A positive SETI signal would affect us globally; science, religion, society, daily life would alter radically.

Unfortunately, SETI is currently drawing up blanks. Apart from one or two inconclusive signs, it looks like we live in a dead part of the galaxy. Life As We Know It™ is an Earth-only affair. Who knows, we might be searching for another five decades and still be no closer to answering the question “are we alone?

Not to be too downhearted, scientists have been trying to make our presence felt by reversing SETI; we’ve been Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI, a.k.a. “Active-SETI”) ever since we attached a plaque depicting the human form and a handy galactic map to Earth to the side of the Pioneer probes in the 1970s. Now we send a variety of radio signals to the stars in the hope of attracting ET’s attention.

But what signal do we send? Do we send a message with only good stuff from Earth? Or should we send a more gritty message, detailing our flaws as well as achievements? What actually makes a “good” METI signal in the first place?

Perhaps SETI could take some advice from the evolving social media scene, after all, when done right, there’s no more efficient way of conveying a clear message via 140 characters or less…
Continue reading “Could Active-SETI Learn From… Twitter?”

Twitter Hearts Space Science Blogging

© Oliver Widder/Geek & Poke
© Oliver Widder/Geek & Poke

It’s Friday Saturday [get comfortable, this turned into a long post], and I’ve been bogged down with a HUGE project I’ve been keeping under wraps for a couple of months (you will find out what that’s about on Monday), so I’ve been blogging in fits and starts. All going well, I’ll be back up to speed on the growing list of space news on and the Universe Today very soon. However, as it’s the end of the week, I feel like posting my thoughts on Twitter, a microblogging platform that has become an invaluable tool not only for my science writing, but for meeting wonderful, like-minded people…
Continue reading “Twitter Hearts Space Science Blogging”

How Do You Spot Science Abuse in the Social Media Soup?

Heads should be held in shame...
Heads should be held in shame...

You know the drill, we’ve all been there.

There you are, minding your own business, participating in the Web 2.0 phenomenon, scanning through the webpages on one of the countless social media sites. And then you see them, like coffee stains on your white upholstery, pages that seem a little out of place. One entry tells you that the world is coming to an end. Another tells you that the Illuminati have built a base on Pluto (with the obligatory IT’S A PLANET!!! comment underneath). Oh, and there’s another, claiming that a comet, twice the size of Jupiter is actually Planet X… and it’s coming right for us!

Of course, our common-sense neurons usually kick in, telling us that the author of the article is either a) nuts, b) an idiot, c) flying at half-mast or d) a troll. In which case, we are able to flex our social media muscles by burying, down-thumbing, down-arrowing, reporting or ignoring the offender.

There we go, social media in practice. One BIG victory for online democracy!

However, sometimes it’s not that simple. What if the author seems to be bona fide? What if the author is a so called “expert”? Say if the article uses some real science to explain their hopelessly flawed theory?

I may have been trawling around the dregs of the doomsday theory ilk for the past year, but the following list applies to pretty much any daft conspiracy theory or outrageous science claim, intended to misinform, scare or cause an online headache as you voyage through the increasingly accessible social media…
Continue reading “How Do You Spot Science Abuse in the Social Media Soup?”

Twitter Physics: #physics140


If you are familiar with Twitter, you will have come across search tags (words with the hash character in front, i.e. “#searchterm”). So today I decided to create #physics140 where any Twitter user can submit an everyday example of physics.


@MDBenson: Cat with wet paws jumps on handbasin for a drink, slips and falls off with a crash and a lot of spitting. Friction Fail #physics140

@astroengine: Turns out that putting ur coffee mug ontop of a subwoofer during NTrance “Set You Free” vibrates said mug onto the floor. #physics140

We’ll see how this works out, but it could be fun as well as educational. So, get onto Twitter and include your piece of everyday physics in 140 characters or less!

For easy tag browsing, check out the #physics140 @tagalus listing (thanks @natronics!)

The Anatomy of a Los Angeles Earthquake… on Twitter

The July earthquake in LA caused chaos in the shampoo & conditioner isles...
The July earthquake in LA caused chaos in the shampoo & conditioner aisles...

Sitting at my desk at 7:42pm (Friday), doing some research on the web (read: procrastinating), I felt something odd. It was as if somebody walked behind my chair, shunting me forward slightly. I turned, and of course no one was there. Slightly confused, I heard my wife shout from the living room, “Did you feel that?” Then I knew I wasn’t dreaming, there had been an earthquake.

That wasn’t my first experience of a quake, back in July 2008, Woodland Hills felt a seismic wave from the magnitude 5.4 earthquake epicentre near Downtown LA. That’s the only way I can describe it, a rolling wave. We were outside at the time, and I was amazed to see the water in the pool slosh over the sides. Now that was my first quake, and I found it pretty exhilarating (as I ran inside to get my video camera to take an eyewitness account of any other tremors, but there were no more to follow).

Today’s was a short and pretty wimpy magnitude 3.4, just a tiny burst of energy. However, interested to find out more, I turned to one of the best breaking news resources out there, Twitter
Continue reading “The Anatomy of a Los Angeles Earthquake… on Twitter”

My Social Universe

My Facebook Universe
My Facebook Universe

It might seem a little egocentric, but I thought this was rather cool. After wading knee-deep in Facebook code for the last few days, I came across some nice little tools. As with 90% of Facebook apps, it is debatable as to whether they are considered “useful” or not, but the power of this social media platform is abundant.

Take this application for example. Using an easy to use Java interface, you can get a visual snapshot of your online social network. I’ve only got as far as displaying all my friends according to location; in my case, predominantly from my hometown of Bristol, England and university town of Aberystwyth, Wales. There is also a strengthening contingent from the US (in the bottom left of the image, above).

So, this is my very own social universe. All they need to do is to make this 3D and rotate dynamically and it really will be like having my very own planetarium of Facebook friends 🙂

Ok, ok, I’m getting back to the space science writing now

Astroengine Social Media: Facebook Connect

Facebook Connect, a new era for social media...
Facebook Connect, a new era for social media...

Facebook recently officially announced the release of Facebook Connect. At first, I was a little dubious as to what it would do; after all who needs to sign in to their Facebook account when surfing other websites, right?

Actually, Facebook Connect is a little deeper than that. Until now, Facebook has remained on, there was no way to transplant any of the social media applications to your own website (apart from a few developers). Applications for Facebook have been around since the dawn of the site, allowing users to develop and launch their own “useful” tools to connect, play, message and inform friends. Some have argued that the site was becoming cumbersome, with a vast number of user applications ballooning the platform out of all proportions. Many userpages were cluttered and overcrowded (including mine). So only a few weeks ago, Facebook underwent a huge face-lift, appearing to cut most of the chaff from userpages.

So far, so good.

But then the growing company announces it was developing its flexible platform to branch out. It would appear was just the beginning, over the coming months we’ll see Facebook applications appearing on other websites, expanding the scope of this social networking tool across the Internet…
Continue reading “Astroengine Social Media: Facebook Connect”

Added Google Friend Connect

Google Friend Connect

In an effort to boost the community “feel” of, I’ve added the Google Friend Connect widget to the panel to the right. It seems like a great way to communicate the site’s articles and a useful tool for visitors to meet like-minded individuals. I’ll be assessing its effectiveness over the coming days, plus you might see some more tools appear. These moves are all intended to improve content and boost the number of ways visitors can share information.

Simply click on the “Join Site” button and enjoy…

Thank you Avi for pointing out this nifty little gadget, let’s see what it can do!

Cheers, Ian