In a major coup for Facebook-owned Instagram, NASA agreed to debut its first surface image of Pluto on the wildly popular photo sharing service.
NASA said it was giving Instagram an hour-long head start on the first image, posting it to the social media site around 7am ET before officially releasing it, along with the science that explains it, on NASA.gov around 8am ET.
“We made an editorial decision to give the world a sneak peek of the image on Instagram,” NASA social media manager John Yembrick wrote in an email to WIRED. “We feel it’s important to engage new audiences.”
Gorgeous Pluto! The dwarf planet has sent a love note back to Earth via our New Horizons spacecraft, which has traveled more than 9 years and 3+ billion miles. This is the last and most detailed image of Pluto sent to Earth before the moment of closest approach, which was at 7:49 a.m. EDT Tuesday – about 7,750 miles above the surface — roughly the same distance from New York to Mumbai, India – making it the first-ever space mission to explore a world so far from Earth. This stunning image of the dwarf planet was captured from New Horizons at about 4 p.m. EDT on July 13, about 16 hours before the moment of closest approach. The spacecraft was 476,000 miles (766,000 kilometers) from the surface. Images from closest approach are expected to be released on Wednesday, July 15. Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI #nasa #pluto #plutoflyby #newhorizons#solarsystem #nasabeyond #science
But the Pluto photo on Instagram appears to be the first time the space agency has given a social media company first dibs on one of its space exploration photos—if only by an hour. “It’s the first time we are aware of a major debut,” an Instagram spokeswoman tells WIRED.
Quick With A Fave
It’s a smart move by the space agency, which instead of squirelling the photos away on its website is pushing them directly to Instagram’s 300 million users.
And it’s a huge win for the company, as users eager to share the photo link to or embed the Instagram version rather than a straight image file. Instagram also gets to showcase the recently launched update to its search and discovery features with a curated list of space-related accounts, including NASA’s, under the app’s Explore tab.
As cool as the picture itself may be, the NASA’s move raises the question of favoritism. Is it problematic that a public agency is giving preference to a specific private media outlet? NASA has traditionally released images of such historic occasions—including, more recently, the launch of astronaut Scott Kelly to the ISS and the ongoing Mars Curiosity Rover coverage—while they were happening or soon after on its public website.
It’s a huge win for the company, as users eager to share the photo link to or embed the Instagram version.
It’s one thing to release images on the public site and simultaneously to social media. It’s another to single out a specific platform and hand them an exclusive debut, especially at a time when Facebook is seeking to consolidate so much content—videos, news in the form of Instant Articles—on its own platform rather than linking out to the web at large.
WIRED reached out late Monday to other social media companies, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, Tumblr, and Snapchat to ask whether NASA had reached out to any of them with offers of Pluto news or images. The only company to immediately respond was Twitter, which said @NASANewHorizons will be live-tweeting this morning using the hashtag #plutoflyby.
NASA, for its part, has said the image it would release to Instagram would be the closest one of Pluto yet—but it wouldn’t be the closest for the New Horizons spacecraft. Those would come after the flyby at around 8am ET tomorrow and would be released by the space agency on Wednesday.