A video shared by NASA on Monday revealed the first-ever look at a spacecraft landing on Mars – and the internet was quick to take up a challenge to decode a message hidden in the parachute of the Perseverance rover.
In the video, the colorful orange-and-white parachute can be seen above the rover as it helped to slow the descent of the spacecraft.
“You might notice the pattern that’s on the parachute here,” said Allen Chen, the entry, descent and landing lead for the rover, on Monday. “Distinct patterns are useful in helping us determine the clocking orientation of the parachute. Also, the contrasting sections can be useful in tracking different portions of the parachute as it inflates.
“In addition to enabling incredible science, we hope our efforts and our engineering can inspire others. Sometimes we leave messages in our work for others to find for that purpose. So we invite you all to give it a shot and show your work.”
Eagle-eyed space fans took up Chen’s challenge and made short work of unraveling the code.
“It looks like the internet has cracked the code in something like 6 hours! Oh internet is there anything you can’t do?” tweeted Adam Steltzner, the rover’s chief engineer.
The parachute’s hidden message includes the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory motto, “Dare mighty things,” as well as GPS coordinates for JPL in Pasadena, California.
The messages were included in the parachute using binary code within the white and orange gores, or triangles of fabric. The inner part of the parachute includes “Dare mighty things,” with each word in an expanding ring of gores. The band around the parachute is where the GPS coordinates for JPL can be found.
The motto borrows from a Theodore Roosevelt quote: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure … than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
The rover was built by the team at JPL, where the mission is managed.
Ian Clark, the rover’s systems engineer, was the mastermind behind the binary code pattern on the parachute.
“The brain child of Ian Clark- who has done anything the project asked him to do, whether it was lead, develop, and execute a supersonic parachute test program, prove the cleanliness of the sampling system, or support EDL operations. All around sharp and selfless dude,” Chen tweeted.
It’s not the first Easter egg to be included with the Perseverance rover, and the mission team has suggested that more will be revealed in images returned by the rover in the future.
The rover carries silicon chips containing the names of nearly 11 million people who participated in the “Send Your Name to Mars” campaign, as well as 155 essays submitted by students who entered a contest to name the rover. Perseverance also has a metal plate as a tribute to health care workers during the pandemic.
On the rover’s deck is a symbol-laden calibration target for Mastcam-Z, or the rover’s pair of zoomable cameras. The calibration target includes color swatches to adjust the cameras’ settings, but also symbols of a man and a woman, a fern, a dinosaur, a rocket traveling from Earth to Mars, a model of the inner solar system, DNA and cyanobacteria, which is one of the earliest forms of life on Earth.
The target also includes the motto, “Two worlds, one beginning,” which alludes to the idea that Earth and Mars were created from the same dust swirling around the sun billions of years ago.
The calibration target for the SHERLOC instrument, or Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics & Chemicals, also carries some hidden gems.
The bottom row includes spacesuit materials to see how they react over time to the radiation in the Martian atmosphere. One is a piece of polycarbonate that could be used for a helmet visor. It doubles as a geocaching target and is etched with 221B Baker Street, the address of the beloved fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.
The top row, which will be used to fine-tune settings on the instrument, includes a slice of Martian meteorite.
Perseverance’s fellow rover Curiosity also carries its share of Easter eggs. When the rover began to explore the Martian surface in August 2012, it left zigzagging patterns in the red dust based on the tread of its aluminum wheels.
Embedded in those treads are tiny dots, which create a repeating pattern the rover uses to drive more accurately. The dot pattern is actually Morse code for JPL. So with every roll of the wheel across Mars, Curiosity is stamping “JPL” into the surface of the red planet.