NASA is famous for incorporating both practical and playful messages aboard its space bound rovers and landers. Similar to the InSight lander and the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the Perseverance rover launched in July 2020 also carries its fair share of undeciphered Easter eggs. The Perseverance rover is part of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program and includes the small robotic helicopter, Ingenuity. The main aim of the mission is to collect samples of Martian soil and bring it back to Earth for scientists to study. The coaxial helicopter Ingenuity has been in the news lately as space fans decoded a message amidst the splotches of red, white, and orange that decorated it. Allen Chen, the engineer in charge of the landing system of this mission, was narrating the events of a video that showed the deployment of the Ingenuity helicopter from the Perseverance rover.
During this session, he cryptically mentioned how NASA hopes to inspire others with its work and ignite a passion for discovery in them. He also went to mention how NASA sometimes leaves little messages aboard its many projects. This made space enthusiasts fly into a frenzy as they figured out that the seemingly random pattern on the parachute of the helicopter contained a code. Soon enough, this Easter egg was decoded amidst many others as people pieced the bits and clues together. The parachute’s design needed a distinctive pattern to help engineers understand its exact orientation as it descended onto the Red Planet. A swatch of fabric was taken from the Wright Brothers’ original aircraft named The Flyer. On each layer of the parachute’s inner rings, the quote ‘Dare Mighty Things’ was embedded in binary.
The red colored patches were made to represent 1s while the white colored patches represented 0s. The numbers were converted into groups of 10 to represent 10-bit patterns that could be translated into the letters of the English alphabet. These spelled out ‘Dare Mighty Things’, which is not only a small excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s iconic speech in 1899 but is also a quotation often cited in JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) headquarters. JPL was the research and development centre where Perseverance was constructed and it is also the place that has also successfully helped other rovers to blaze a trail through our solar system. In commemoration of this, the outer rings of the parachute had the coordinates of the NASA JPL headquarters encoded. These are 34° 11’ 58” N and 118° 10’ 31” W.
In addition to this, there is a picture with NASA’s past rovers: Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, Perseverance and Ingenuity all in the same frame. It has been regarded as something of a ‘family portrait’. This pays tribute to all of NASA’s previous Mars Exploration missions and acknowledges their contribution in enhancing human knowledge regarding the Red Planet. Just like each individual automobile is given a specific Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), the Perseverance rover was provided with the first official, off-planet Product Identification Number (PIN). It is a unique 17-character long code, made up of a combination of numbers and letters. It reads AONREHMELN1730055 and there is supposed to be significant meaning behind the selection of this particular array of characters.
Here is what it is supposed to stand for: AON stands for characters assigned by the Society of Automotive Engineers, R stands for the primary vehicle which is a rover, E denotes that the primary vehicle is electrically powered while H stands for the secondary vehicle that is Ingenuity, the helicopter. With regard to the other characters, M is supposed to denote the location of operation that is Mars, the other E spells out the objective that is exploration. L is another character assigned by the Society of Automotive Engineers and N stands for the year that Perseverance is supposed to complete its mission by. 1 stands for the mission operator plant or NASA while the number 7 indicates that there are 7 instruments onboard the Mars bound rover. 3 is representative of Earth being the planet that the mission was launched from while 0055 shows that of five attempts, Perseverance is the fifth vehicle to have successfully landed on Mars.
It has been decided that a PIN number will henceforth be allotted for all future space bound vehicles. Each lander and rover will have a unique PIN that will serve as their identifying mark. Basically, the PIN will act as the fingerprint of the vehicle. Ironically, Perseverance is also equipped with its own DNA. There are illustrations of a dinosaur, a helical strand of DNA, and a rocket engraved upon the rover’s body. The DNA illustration is stamped over the rover’s front left wheel and is said to serve as a reminder about how the rover was a result of sheer human dedication and hard work, made possible over the course of several years. It is also said to serve as a reminder about how all of NASA’s space robots have human origins.
The illustrations of the dinosaur and the rocket are a little more whimsical. The dinosaur is meant to signify humans’ quest of searching for other forms of life on different planets whereas the rocket is supposed to pay tribute to the rocket that housed the Perseverance rover. It is difficult to believe that in such a vast and seemingly never-ending expanse of the universe, we are the only planet with life. Hopefully, the Martian soil samples that Perseverance is ought to return with will throw some light on this matter. The rover is also equipped with a piece of the Martian meteorite that hit Earth and is now returning to its native planet. It is contained within the calibration target for SHERLOC, one of the instruments aboard the rover. The address of the popular fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, ‘221B BAKER’ is engraved into the instrument.
This meteorite sample is to be used for calibration of SuperCam. SuperCam is essentially an instrument that incorporates the use of lasers and deploys cameras to identify carbon-based molecules and other selective compounds in rocks and foreign soil that you want examined. Moreover, there is also an additional camera named Mastcam-Z that is to fine-tune the cameras’ settings even further and help it click images in high resolution. However, this is just the beginning of the decryption of the Easter eggs aboard Perseverance. Once the robot arm is deployed, more surprises will be unveiled. As part of NASA’s objective to garner more interest and involve the general public in its space missions, a placard bears the names of 10,932,295 people contained in 3 small chips.
These chips also contain the essays written by the 155 finalists in NASA’s ‘Name the Rover’ contest that was held in 2020. The plaque also features a hidden message in Morse code, very similar to the Morse code in the tyre tracks of the Curiosity rover that spelled out JPL. This Morse code message is stencilled within a graphic of Earth and Mars joined together by the Sun. It reads ‘Explore As One’. These small embellishments add an artistic charm to missions that are mostly dominated by science and technology. However, on a more solemn note, it is essential to remember that when Perseverance was first launched in July 2020, most of the modern world was battling the coronavirus pandemic that plagues us till date.
As a token of appreciation for the healthcare workers around the globe who have worked tirelessly during this pandemic, NASA amalgamated its logo with the rod of Asclepius and affixed it on an aluminium plate. It acknowledges the hardships of the people and pays homage to the undaunting human spirit. NASA, quite rightly, is regarded as the pioneer of space exploration and innovation. With the contributions of hundreds of scientists across the world, the Mars Exploration Program seems to be turning out to be a success. More Easter eggs are bound to be uncovered in due time as the rover collects samples of Martian soil to bring back home and new photos are released.