When NASA’s Perseverance rover made its daring descent to the red planet, you may have noticed that its parachute bore an unusual arrangement of red and white chevrons.
That pattern, it turns out, was not random at all, but a hidden code. Within just six hours, internet sleuths had cracked it, revealing a beautifully uplifting message: “Dare Mighty Things”.
The phrase has been used as the motto by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for years, taken from a speech delivered by American president Theodore Roosevelt in 1899:
“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.”
The hidden message was first mentioned in the landing livestream by NASA systems engineer Allen Chen, who commented, “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.”
The first solution posted online seems to have been by IT student Abela Paf on Twitter. The message, he said, had been decoded by him and his father, who identified that the chevrons were arranged in concentric rings that encoded a 10-bit pattern.
— Abela_Paf (@FrenchTech_paf) February 22, 2021
“Each binary number encodes a position in the alphabet, starting at 1,” he explained. “For the word ‘mighty’, we just have to start counting 40 bits later and it would be correct.”
If the red sections are 1s and the white sections are 0s, the rings can be broken down into blocks that represent numbers. Then you add the number 64. So the first letter in the code is 0000000100, which gives you the number 4. Add 64 to get 68 – the ASCII code for the capital letter D.
That explains the inner three rings. The outer ring, on the other hand, displays letters and numbers: 34 11 58 N 118 10 31 W. These, posted to reddit by user tend0g, are the geographic coordinates for JPL – 34°11’58” N 118°10’31” W.
Chief Perseverance engineer Adam Steltzner of NASA JPL confirmed the solution.
It looks like the internet has cracked the code in something like 6 hours! Oh internet is there anything you can’t do? For those who just want to know: #Mars2020 #CountdownToMars pic.twitter.com/yTJCEnbuLY
— Adam Steltzner (@steltzner) February 23, 2021
That’s not Perseverance’s only secret message, though.
The rays of the Sun on the placard containing a chip bearing names and messages from Earthlings are in Morse code, spelling out the phrase “Explore As One”. And tucked away on a plate on its chassis is a family portrait of all NASA’s Mars rovers: Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, Perseverance and Ingenuity.
Some of you spotted the special message I’m carrying to Mars along with the 10.9+ million names you all sent in. “Explore As One” is written in Morse code in the Sun’s rays, which connect our home planet with the one I’ll explore. Together, we persevere. https://t.co/Bsv1mqpxlA pic.twitter.com/GhcS1HgsIN
— NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover (@NASAPersevere) March 30, 2020
Curiosity isn’t without secrets, either. A pattern in the rover’s wheels is also Morse code, spelling out JPL. Indeed, sending coded messages to space on our exploration vessels is something of a tradition.
As Allen Chen noted to The Verge, Perseverance could be riddled with many more secrets.
“People can’t resist putting a little personal touch in their work,” he said. “But the vast majority of these will never be known – even by me.”