Internet sleuths claim to have decoded a hidden message displayed on the parachute that helped Nasa’s Perseverance Rover land safely on Mars last week. They claim that the phrase “Dare mighty things” – used as a motto by Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – was encoded on the parachute using a pattern representing letters as binary computer code.
Reddit users and social media posters on Twitter noticed that the red-and-white pattern on the parachute looked deliberate, and arrived at the result by using the red to represent the figure one, and the white to represent zero.
Each of the concentric rings in the parachute’s pattern represents one of the words. The zeroes and ones need to be split up into chunks of 10 characters, and from that, adding 64 gives you the computer ASCII code representing a letter. For example, seven white stripes, a red stripe and then two more white stripes represents 0000000100, the binary for four. Adding 64 to that gives 68, the ASCII code for the letter D.
The pattern on the outer-edge of the parachute is additionally believed to represent 34°11’58” N 118°10’31” W, the geolocation code for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which carried out much of the work on Perseverance.
The origins of the phrase are an 1899 speech by Theodore Roosevelt, in which 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.”
The challenge had been set by Nasa itself. While the pattern has a scientific purpose – it allows mission control to see the angle the parachute has deployed at and whether it has got twisted – during a live stream discussing the landing, one Nasa commentator said: “Sometimes we leave messages in our work for others to find. So we invite you all to give it a shot and show your work.”
Nasa has previously used the phrase in association with its Mars missions. In 2013 it issued a trailer video of the Curiosity rover mission entitled “Dare mighty things”. The current mission has also used the phrase in tweets marking the successful landing.
The hi-tech fabric making up the parachute was created in Devon, emphasising the international nature of the effort to get Perseverance to the red planet. Heathcoat Fabrics of Tiverton said it was “very, very proud of the achievement”, with the director of the company’s woven fabric department, Peter Hill, saying it represented 15 years’ work.
The company’s technical director, Richard Crane, told the BBC: “It is an incredibly emotional moment, when you know that millions of people around the world are holding their breath, waiting for news of a successful touchdown, and that part of that success is down to the efforts of our fantastic team here in Tiverton.”
This isn’t the only hidden message carried on the Perseverance Rover. Among the “Easter eggs” Nasa put on the vehicle there are special microchips carrying 10.9 million names and 155 essays sent to the space agency as part of competitions to send names to Mars or to name the rover itself.
The vehicle also carries a reference to the Covid pandemic, which has affected the preparations and running of the mission here on Earth. An aluminium plate on the rover carries an image of the Rod of Asclepius, the ancient Greek symbol for healing and medicine, supporting the Earth, in honour of the work of frontline medical workers during the pandemic.