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From colors to Morse code, secret messages appear as Mars rover gets to work

Posted February 23, 2021 2:13 p.m. EST
Updated February 23, 2021 5:17 p.m. EST

On Monday, NASA shared video captured by four video cameras as the Perseverance rover landed on Mars. Alan Chen, entry, descent, and landing lead, described the video, commenting on how cleanly the supersonic parachute used to slow the rover in the thin Martian air opened.

He also described how patterns in the contrasting fabric panels are used to determine the parachute's orientation and in tracking how different portions of the parachute inflate.

"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." Chen added.

Within hours, NASA fans had decoded the message.

Mars parachute decoded

Hidden in the 320 red and white fabric panels is the message "DARE MIGHTY THINGS" along with the Earthly coordinates of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Letters and numbers are binary encoded in ten panel groups with red representing 1 and white representing 0. Each character is conveniently separated by 3 white panels and solid red ten panel sections indicate stops.

0000100 0000001 0010010 0000101 
   4       1      18       5    
   D       A       R       E   

0001101 0001001 0000111 0001000 0010100 0011001 
  13       9       7       8      20      25    
   M       I       G       H       T       Y    

0010100 0001000 0001001 0001110 0000111 0010011 
  20       8       9      14       7      19    
   T       H       I       N       G       S    

The final outer ring provides GPS coordinates in degrees, minutes and seconds of latitude and longitude . 34° 11' 58" N, 118° 10' 31" W resolves to 4800 Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena, Calif., the front door of JPL's campus where the rover was designed, built and is controlled from.

The phrase, which JPL has painted on its walls and tagged its videos with for several years, originates from a 1899 speech by Theodore Roosevelt where he said “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Other Easter eggs on Mars

JPL engineers are known to hide Easter eggs, or hidden messages, in plain sight.

When it became clear that the soft soil on Mars could cause wheels to slip, a way was needed to tell how far the rover traveled other than counting revolutions of the wheel. Using a process called visual odometry, designers arranged the gaps in rover wheels which provide grip, into a pattern that leaves behind .--- .--. .-.. or JPL in Morse code in the robot's tracks.

Eyes on Curiosity Rover's Driving

The calibration target used aboard the InSight Mars lander provides a variety of colors and shapes to help calibrate the lander's cameras. It also shows off international flags representing the agencies, institutions and participating scientists of the mission. JPL was hidden, this time in Braille along the edges of the target.

InSight Mars lander calibration target

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