NASA's out-of-this-world Instagram

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By Isabelle Chapman, Morgan Giordano and E.G. Lyons

Social media instantly connects people around the world, and now it may extend to the farthest realms of the Milky Way and some distant galaxies. If social media users want to see a selfie taken in outer space or hope to stay abreast on the happenings in far off star clusters, the best place to look is NASA's social media accounts. When astronomers using NASA's Hubble Telescope captured a first-ever look at the dynamic movement of Saturn's auroral lights, it was not long until they blasted out out a picture with the new discovery to their followers on Instagram. Soon, their millions of followers knew from the caption that not only was this a cool picture, but it was a huge breakthrough in studying Saturn's ever-changing aurora patterns. Casual fans of astronomy were instantly given new information. However, this was not always the case.

The governmental agency hopped on the social media bandwagon with Twitter in 2008, John Yembrick and Jason Townsend, the brains behind the NASA social media machine, told AOL in an interview. Five years later, a press release announced the creation of an official Instagram to "take its fans on an out-of-this-world journey through images of Earth and beyond." The agency now has 6.8 million Twitter followers, 5.3 million Facebook fans and 1.3 million Instagram followers. NASA hoped to better communicate with the public and to keep people up-to-date on the agency's latest projects. NASA launched its wildly successful social media program by live-tweeting the Phoenix Mars Lander mission, which studied the history of water on Mars and led to the discovery of large amounts of subsurface ice on the red planet in May 2008.

The Mars Phoenix Lander tweeted this celebratory post on June 19, 2008 at 5:15 p.m.: "Are you ready to celebrate? Well get ready: we have ICE!!!!! Yes, ICE, WATER ICE on Mars! W00t!!! Best day ever!!"

Since then, the organization has expanded its social media coverage to events on planet Earth, including Oscar coverage. Their social media accounts posted images of real astronauts experiencing zero gravity, while Alfonso Cuarón and the cast of Gravity, including leading lady Sandra Bullock, raked in more than half a dozen golden statues in 2014.

NASA's social media presence has even had an impact on international politics. On May 8, 2014, the agency posted a photograph of all six crew members of the 39th expedition to the International Space Station. The members, who hail from Japan, the United States and Russia, were pictured smiling and floating around a fake globe within their spacecraft while actually orbiting Earth. The picture was posted five days before Russian president Vladimir Putin banned NASA from using the International Space Station beginning in 2020. It is unknown if NASA posted this picture in readiness for the announcement, but two weeks later when the Soyuz crew was asked if the conflict in Ukraine has created tension between the Russian, German and American members, the three got up and embraced, rocking social media.

Yembrick and Townsend try to post timely and newsworthy content that informs and engages followers.

"NASA has content that connects with everyone" Townsend said.

The two agree that social media is a perfect platform for NASA to reach the public by starting conversations about issues that affect the organization and the American people. By posting a mix of iPhone pictures taken by astronauts, archived photographs and images taken directly from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, NASA is engaging an audience who may otherwise not be exposed to these discussions.

Before the dawn of social media -- some 10 years ago -- NASA relied on press releases for exposure. The agency would issue a statement and hope a newspaper or wire service would snag the story. Now, thanks to the digital age, Yembrick and Townsend can update millions of followers on the day-to-day activities of the United States' space program.

Whether Internet users want to be up-to-date on breakthroughs in science or just like awesome pictures of stars, NASA's social media feeds provide followers with high-resolution images of far off galaxies and planet Earth.

"Nobody's putting out content like NASA," Yembrick said.

And he's right. Be sure to click through the above slide show of some of our favorite photos posted to NASA's Instagram feed in recent weeks.