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Astronaut's photos from space make him an Internet star

MONTREAL - Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who is currently floating beyond the stratosphere, may soon surpass Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the Twittersphere.

The 53-year-old astronaut has been tweeting daily from the International Space Station and now has more than a quarter of a million followers.

Hadfield has received international attention and praise for the colourful, detailed photos of the world he's been sending since he arrived on the orbiting space lab on Dec. 21, 2012.

The Canadian space veteran passed the mark of 250,000 followers on Jan. 24 — just over a month into his five-month stay on the space station.

Entering the weekend, the country's prime minister had more than 290,000 followers, although most of the messages sent from his account have been written by staff.

As is the case with many prominent people, most of the short-form messages that appear under Harper's name are crafted by ghost-tweeters working for him.

That's not the case with Hadfield and other astronauts on the space station. All the tweets are his own and, according to one NASA official in charge of social media, that's what is being encouraged.

"There's no ghost-tweeting or anything like that," said Amiko Kauderer, NASA's social media lead at the Johnson Space Center.

"They (astronauts) truly are doing their tweeting."

Hadfield has earned some illustrious fans. Among those who have since exchanged tweets with him are William Shatner, the Montreal-born actor better known as Captain James T. Kirk from "Star Trek."

Canada's most prolific extraterrestrial tweeter has impressed Kauderer, who trains astronauts in the use of social media.

"He's out of control — and it's good," Kauderer told The Canadian Press in an interview from Houston.

"It's been very good (and) we've been very pleased with what he is able to show."

When Hadfield blasted into space and left Earth in December, he had only 20,000 followers on Twitter. He first started using the social media site back on Earth, in Sept. 2010, and he credits his two sons, Evan and Kyle, with pushing him into setting up his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

But Kauderer also said that astronauts are not required to get involved in social media when they are in space.

She pointed out that NASA astronaut Kevin Ford, who is currently aboard the space station with Hadfield, is not tweeting because he chose not to.

Kauderer stressed that the primary job of the astronauts is to perform their science experiments and keep up maintenance of the space station, which is the size of a football field.

But no one has ever been reprimanded for spending too much time, or been told to stop using social media, after hours.

"Tweeting is not included in their timeline, but they do have pockets of spare time built in," Kauderer said.

"It never interferes with the current task at hand which is operating the space station and managing those science experiments and that sort of thing."

Anna Kapiniari, the Canadian Space Agency's manager of strategic communications, says the agency is "overjoyed" at the reaction people have had to Hadfield.

"The success is due to Chris' passion, enthusiasm and eloquence," she wrote in an email. "Canadians can tell he is authentic, has reflected on the experience and so his posts, even at 140 characters, have real meaning."

Though the CSA has been tweeting since 2010, the first astronaut to tweet from the space station was NASA's Mike Massimino in May 2009.

That first one wasn't a live tweet. Massimino sent an email back to Earth and his message from orbit was retweeted. Massimino, who continues to tweet from Earth, is still one of the top astronauts on Twitter with more than 1.2 million followers.

The first actual "live" tweet from the space station came from fellow NASA astronaut T.J. Creamer in January 2010.

But they say travelling to space brings new perspective. How's this for an eye-opener: None of the astronauts, or any Canadian politician, comes close to the Twittersphere status of another famous Canuck.

Pop idol Justin Bieber has more than 33 million followers — which is more than 50 times Hadfield, and the prime minister, combined.

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