Amateur puzzle fans delighted this week when NASA revealed it had hidden a secret color-coded message on the parachute for the Perseverance rover that landed on Mars last week.
The message, written by systems engineer Ian Clark in binary code through alternating white and orange strips on the 70-foot chute, spelled out the NASA motto “Dare Mighty Things,” which comes from a Theodore Roosevelt quote.
Clark, the lead developer of the parachute, had an interesting problem in encoding the message – he couldn’t use any colors that had not already been tested in Mars’ atmosphere. Different color dyes might weaken its integrity inside its harsh environment.
“There’s all kinds of second-guessing questions,” Clark said, according to The New York Times. “Like could having more white than orange, or vice versa, mean that the parachute was going to warm up differently and maybe that would change its behavior?”
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Clark said when he asked deputy project manager Matt Wallace if he could put a message in the parachute, his only guidance was to “make sure it was appropriate and couldn’t be misinterpreted.”
Only about six people knew about the encoded message before last Thursday’s landing, Clark, a cross word puzzle enthusiast, who called creating the encoded message “super fun,” said.
He said it only took puzzle solvers a few hours to figure out the binary-coded missive after it was teased during Monday’s news conference
“I’ll have to be a little bit more creative” next time, he said.
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Clark also included the GPS coordinates of the mission’s headquarters at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in the message – “34°11’58″ N 118°10’31.”
During the news conference, engineer Allen Chen, who was in charge of the landing system, told space fans “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.”
Alternating black and white – or orange and white in this case – is often a hint that something is in binary code, giving enthusiasts their first clue.
Eventually internet detectives realized the series of ones and zeros fit into groups of 10 and spelled out the inspirational message on the parachute’s three inner rings, according to The Times.
Within hours, IT student Maxence Abela posted his answer on Twitter.
“It looks like the internet has cracked the code in something like 6 hours!” Adam Steltzner, chief engineer for the mission, tweeted, showing a graph of the answer.
A message was also written on a plaque that will be used to calibrate a camera on the rover, according to The Times.
It says, “Are we alone? We came here to look for signs of life, and to collect samples of Mars for study on Earth. To those who follow, we wish a safe journey and the joy of discovery.”
The plaque also includes depictions of all five of NASA’s Mars rovers in increasing size over the years.
And Wallace has promised more Easter eggs associated with the rover.
He said they should be visible once Perseverance’s seven-foot arm is deployed in a few days and starts photographing under the vehicle, and again when the rover is driving in a couple weeks.
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“Definitely, definitely should keep a good lookout,” he urged.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.